Bears are back: Keeping them out of trash is crucial to keeping them alive

A bear climbs a tree March 26 along Natches Road in Steamboat Springs. (Courtesy photo by Mary Darcy)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Signs of spring are budding up all across the Yampa Valley, and some of them are more pleasant to deal with than others.

In short: The bears are back in town.

“With this warm weather, they are coming out, and they will start looking for food and see what they can find,” said Kris Middledorf, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager. “There is not really a lot of natural forage available for bears (currently), so it is really important for people to be attentive.”

All the bears in Colorado are black bears — black referring to the species and not the color, as bears can range from blonde to brown in Colorado. Around the middle of March, they wake up from monthslong slumber in search of food. What is often available is found in unsecured trash bins throughout Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat District Wildlife Manager Kyle Bond said they have started to get calls about people seeing bears, bears getting into trash and even bears denning in some pretty awkward places. Some bears will den up under decks or in drainage culverts, which can lead to them waking up in someone’s backyard.

Taking precautions, like locking up trash and other potential food sources from bears, is important at preventing them from becoming habitually reliant on these sources for food. Bears become more of a risk to human safety when they become conditioned to people and associate humans with a food source.

“Bears that become habituated to human-supplied food resources will be put down,” Middledorf said, emphasizing that it is everyone’s personal responsibility to prevent that from happening. “It is very important for us to protect those animals and protect the public, and that is the responsibility of our community.”

If bears become habituated to certain areas, Bond said they often try to relocate the bear. But if they return or become aggressive around humans, wildlife officers don’t have much choice.

“It is terrible. There is no worse feeling in the world than having to kill something you essentially swore to protect when we took on this position,” Bond said.

Steamboat has an ordinance requiring bear-proof cans by March 31, 2023, and haulers are in the process of distributing them. Trash should be stored in either a bear-resistant container or kept inside a shed or garage until the morning of pickup.

Bird feeders are a popular target for bears, sometimes attracting them from miles away, because birdseed has relatively high calorie content, making it an efficient source of energy. Middledorf said it is not recommended to have a bird feeder any time of the year, but especially not when bears are out. Pet and other animal food should also be kept inside.

As weather warms, grills left outside also become a target for bears. Bond recommends turning up the burners after grilling to burn off grease and other remnants of food. If possible, lock up a grill inside a garage.

Food left in open vehicles is a problem, as bears can often find a way in and are generally not kind to the upholstery once inside. If vehicles are left unlocked with food inside, Bond said bears are likely to try to enter.

This extends to homes as well. A few times a year, wildlife officers have to deal with a bear that has made its way into a home because a door or window was left open.

“Bears, surprisingly, have a lot of dexterity in their hands. They can open car doors, they can open up house doors, they can push partially cracked windows open,” said Steamboat Springs Police Sgt. Evan Nobel. “If they smell something inside that they want, they are going to do everything they can to get in.”

Middledorf said paying attention to ground-level windows and doors is important, because they can become easy entrances into a home for bears. Higher windows or doors with access on a balcony or staircase should also be kept closed and locked. He added it is rare for bears to break a window or door to get into something, but it can happen.

When a resident comes across a bear, Bond recommends people try to haze them away by yelling, waving their arms and potentially even throwing snow or other items at them.

“I understand that can be a little bit intimidating for folks to throw something at or yell at a bear,” Bond said. “But realistically, if we allow them to feel more comfortable around people, and they realize that nothing bad or annoying is going to happen to them when they are around people, they are going to gradually get more and more comfortable.”

Bond said people should not shoot at a bear with a pellet or BB gun because that can injure the bear. Middledorf encourages people to call the local CPW office to report the sighting of a bear, because that information is used to target where his agency may need more outreach about bears.

If there does seem to be a safety issue, Middledorf said call 911, and police officers will be able to ensure everything is safe if a wildlife officer cannot immediately respond to the situation.

“The worst day of a wildlife officer’s job is to have to put an animal down due to irresponsible behavior of humans,” Middledorf said. “It is the personal responsibility of individual community members to protect not only the bears but the safety and well-being of the community.”

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