Bear-related trash violation hot spots linger in Steamboat

Sometimes even bear-proof trash receptacles prove no challenge for a hungry bear, such as this one that was found Wednesday alongside a home in Steamboat Springs.
Tim Hancock/Courtesy photo

Through the past five years, community service officers with the Steamboat Springs Police Department have witnessed little changes in the hot spots for trash containment violations that attract bears and contribute to wildlife habituation issues.

Commercial dumpsters near restaurants and stores that sell food, high-density residential neighborhoods and various lodging properties continue to be areas with higher numbers of bear-related calls, written warnings and citations, according to Community Service Officer Isis Adams, who has responded to code enforcement calls since May 2017.

“We see exactly the same areas time and time, again,” Adams said.

Police department statistics through Aug. 29 show 355 bear-related calls from the community this year that led to 55 written warnings and 15 citations. Those citations carry a $20 surcharge and a mandatory appearance in municipal court, where fines could be levied up to $999, per city ordinances.

Throughout 2020, the police department received 387 bear-related calls and issued 31 written warnings and 39 citations. In 2019, police received 323 bear-related calls and issued 14 written warnings and 56 trash citations, with those citations split approximately in half between commercial and residential locations, according to Christina Stewart, records supervisor for the police department.

With local bears currently entering hyperphagia, or the time of bruins consuming as many calories as possible before winter hibernation, this year’s trash warnings and citations will certainly rise. This year, the community service officers who issue citations were hampered by a shortage of fully trained officers, Adams said, with the staff short two out of four officers through June. Police officers also can write trash citations or warnings when community service officers are not on duty.

Adams believes the repeated locations of violations indicate a combination of bears learning places to visit for unsecured food rewards, as well as humans repeatedly leaving trash containers open during daytime hours. Adams said when a commercial dumpster is used by multiple businesses, if a community service officer cannot identify a culprit for not securing the container, the officer can issue a citation to all of the businesses. Other issues for repeated violations include food items thrown into recycling bins or open, smaller trash containers sitting alongside a locked container.

Adams has heard a long list of justifications for the violations, for which she offers some suggestions. For employee safety and ease of operating the sometimes-heavy lids on dumpsters, two employees should team up for trash trips. If possible, find an indoor, secure location for interim trash collection in order to reduce the number of trips to open the dumpster each day. Utilize a large, rolling trash cart to reduce trips to the dumpster.

“This is our community, and if we want to see wildlife stay wild, we all need to do our part, work as a team and educate others about bear safety and awareness,” Adams said. “If you left the dumpster open from last time, and you are not paying attention, you can be confronted with a bear.”

Adams said passersby can get involved to help with securing dumpsters, too.

“If you see a publicly located dumpster that’s open, lock it up or get somebody from that business to go and lock it up,” Adams said. “We all have to do our part and make sure our trash can is closed and secured at all times.”

In addition to updated Steamboat trash ordinances to protect bears, a 1992 Colorado law makes it illegal to intentionally feed big game animals, from deer to bears, and violators can be fined. Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar said Colorado Parks & Wildlife normally handles bear-related calls in the county, but sometimes, deputies respond when CPW is not available. Scherar said his staff carry nonlethal bean bag rounds, which they used approximately six times this summer to scare away bears.

Adams said it is frustrating to see propped open dumpsters and unsecure trash cans after years of a variety of educational tactics. The community service officers in their yellow shirts do not carry bean bag guns nor bear spray, and their main tool is a vehicle with sirens and a built-in air horn to try to scare away hungry bears from trash, she said.

Community safety officers leave Lock the Lid education information with the written warnings and can provide seven days for people to address the issue or to request a replacement for a broken container from a trash hauler. Officers also can review the address for repeat violations. Adams said citizens who report bear-related trash violations should try to do so at the time of the violation, instead of several days later, so that officers can accurately investigate concerns.

The community safety officer knows which neighborhoods across town have trash pick-up service on which days of the week, because the bears know that well, too.

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