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Close Encounters Of the Wilder Kind

Coming face-to-face with a Colorado black bear was about the last thing Kurt Masel expected when he cut through a city park last month to get to a nearby pay phone. Naturally, it's exactly what happened.

As the longtime Colorado Springs resident was striding along the well-worn trail, he suddenly found himself staring into the blazing eyes of a 6-foot, 300-pound mama bear - who was clearly fiercely protective of her three cubs playing close by in the brush. With little time to react, the veteran outdoorsman was promptly chased up a tree and down a hill by the roaring bear sow, and bitten twice and clawed across the chest in the process. In the end, Mr. Masel walked away to tell the tale - but with the battle scars to prove it.

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Wildlife experts say such en-counters are becoming more prevalent than ever throughout the United States. In fact, these days one needn't venture far from urban areas to cross paths with wild critters.cck From populous southern California to metropolitan Phoenix, species once believed threatened by human inhabitants are, instead, thriving in the face of development.

"I'm one of the few lucky ones who got away from a bear to tell the story," Masel says. In his 20 years of backpacking, hiking, and hunting in wilderness areas, he'd never faced such an up-close-and-personal encounter with wildlife. Yet this incident occurred in a popular park barely five minutes from bustling downtown Colorado Springs.

In the past year in Colorado, the Division of Wildlife documented some 450 conflicts with black bears - and most occurred near fast-growing cities and close-in suburbs. By contrast, only a decade ago, such confrontations were nearly unheard of outside wilderness areas.

And it isn't just bears that pose a threat. Mountain lions, elk, coyotes, and even deer have been known to threaten and attack humans entering their domain.

While, for the most part, conflicts with wildlife don't end in human fatalities, that risk is ever-present. It also may be increasing, says Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for Colorado's Wildlife Division. Although only two people were killed by bears in Colorado this century, both incidents occurred in the past decade. Similarly, the majority of fatal attacks by mountain lions throughout North America have occurred in the 1990s.

It's not that wildlife is becoming wilder per se. But as population centers spread, development encroaches further into wildlife habitat. At the same time, wild animals become increasingly habituated to the presence of humans and so are less inclined to avoid people. And above all, they have come to view humans as a convenient source of food - whether in the form of household trash, domestic pets, or lush lawns and flower gardens.

Wild animals clearly are no fools. For them, residential areas are an all-you-can-eat buffet table. And that leads to encounters that lend new meaning to the term Wild West. For example:

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* Last year, west of Fort Collins, a single bear broke into 80 campers, trailers, and homes, causing more than $20,000 in damage.

* At Boulder Community Hospital, a mountain lion and her kittens were found nesting on the patio not long ago.

* In Estes Park, elk chase inline-skaters and joggers down city paths, and even terrorize residents in their own backyards. Coyotes have been seen eyeing young children at day care centers and bus stops.

* Rangers have received frantic calls from residents saying they've come home to find a bear in their kitchen - trying to rip the door off their refrigerator.

* Throughout the Denver area, coyotes regularly make meals of small family pets, snatching them from suburban backyards.

But since wild animals are only doing what comes naturally, it's up to humans to adapt to living with wildlife, says Bruce Gill, a state wildlife biologist. "Bears are not going to change their behavior, so if people want to be safe around bears, they have to change their own behavior."

Above all, don't encourage wildlife to convene at your home by leaving out trash cans, bags of pet food, or even bird seed, he says. Never intentionally feed wild animals, no matter how much you may enjoy viewing them. Once they associate you and your home with eating, you're at risk of becoming their next meal.

"People will put strings of cookies in their trees so they can take pictures of wildlife," sighs Mr. Gill. "Don't do it - or you're going to have a close encounter with wildlife of the most dangerous kind."

Doing so, he adds, is as dangerous to wildlife as it is to humans. Once a wild animal has attacked a human, wildlife officials typically have to destroy it. "When people feed a bear, they are essentially signing that bear's death warrant," Gill says.

Colorado's Wildlife Division has been trying for years to raise awareness about wildlife through a public-education campaign. But with a plentiful supply of newcomers to the state, it's a task that never ends.

In his frequent role as an educator of new residents, Mr. Malmsbury has found that former city-dwellers tend to know about as much about wildlife as they've seen on the Animal Planet channel. In other words, they need a crash course in living safely in wildlife habitat.

"Whether people like it or not, we - as the supposedly more intelligent species - need to take responsibility for learning to live with wildlife," he says.

Considering his own hair-raising encounter with the she-bear, Masel agrees completely. "It was never the bear's fault. And whether it's a bear, a mountain lion, or an alligator in Florida, the animals were there before us. That's their territory," he says. "We as humans need to respect their habitat."

While that doesn't mean staying at home with the doors and windows barricaded, it does mean using common sense on excursions into the woods or mountains - even if that's only steps from your backyard.

When in mountain-lion territory, for example, hike in groups, and keep children close to you, Malmsbury advises. Similarly, pets should always be kept on a leash. And avoid outings between dusk and dawn - the times when lions are most likely to prowl for meals.

Estes Park wildlife ranger Rick Spowart has this nugget of advice for lovers of wild animals: "Let them be wild." His pet peeve is tourists who insist on approaching wildlife while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.

"They continually want to feed the wildlife and get their picture taken with them. So we're forever having to tell people they can't do that. You kind of hate to ruin their vacation," he says. "But it isn't fair to the animal either."

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