Hunting for answers: What Steamboat officials could learn from extensive Durango bear research project |

Hunting for answers: What Steamboat officials could learn from extensive Durango bear research project

A sow with her cub.

Step close to Lyle Willmarth's pickup, and it is easy to detect an odor that is disgusting to humans but is an irresistible scent to bears.

Soon after pulling onto U.S. Highway 550 in Durango, Willmarth makes a call back to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office.

"There's a dead deer right across from Goodyear," Willmarth tells his colleague.

Dinner is not on Willmarth's mind.

"We use roadkill if we're baiting outside of town," said Willmarth, a wildlife technician who spends his summers trapping bears.

They do not use roadkill in town because they do not want dogs to wind up in their traps. Instead, they offer up fruit and donuts.

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With July Fourth having just passed, that means lots of red, white and blue frosted cakes.

"Anything and everything," Willmarth said. "We get all the day-old stuff."

On the hunt

This is the fifth year that a team of Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers has been studying the bear population in the Durango area. The study is mostly funded by Parks and Wildlife.

Wildlife officials across Colorado, including Steamboat Springs, are eager to capitalize on what the researchers learn during the six-year study.

"I'm anxious to see what the findings are going to be," said Jeff Yost, a Parks and Wildlife terrestrial wildlife biologist based out of Steamboat. "I'm skeptical, because of human nature, what we're going to be able to do about it."

The Durango team, lead by Heather Johnson, has already published some of its findings.

The study could have implications on management practices for bears, including how many licenses are issued to hunters. Cities and towns, including Steamboat, could also use the research to make educated policy decisions on rules, such as requiring residents to use bear-proof trash containers.

"Whatever they can learn is probably going to apply for the most part in other communities," Yost said.

Until then, more research needs to be done by people like Willmarth, who said he was recruited by the state 20 years ago because he had gained the reputation of successfully hunting a bear every year.

"My hunting skills got me a job," Willmarth said.

On July 14, Willmarth headed off to check five of the seven traps that were set the previous day. First stop was a trap set behind a dumpster used by a Mexican restaurant.

"This dumpster is notoriously famous for bears," Willmarth said.

Torn up trash was scattered throughout the area.

"This is a bear magnet," Willmarth said. "This hillside is totally covered in trash."

A look inside the trap revealed no bear, but there was bait missing. Willmarth strongly suspected a male bear had been inside.

"We call them stretchers," Willmarth said. "They know if they keep one foot inside, they're not going to get caught."

During the past five years of research, some bears have learned to evade the traps. The "stretchers" know to not step on the plate. Willmarth thinks some sows may also be teaching their cubs not to go near the traps.

"There aren't that many naive bears yet," Johnson said.

Catching bears is not as easy as it once was in the Durango area, and the natural food supply is particularly abundant this summer. Despite that, as of July 13, the team had caught and released 717 bears during the study. Collars fitted with GPS transmitters have been placed on 70 sows, allowing the researchers to map their movements.

Using barbed wire stretched around trees, 4,001 DNA hair samples have been collected.

During the winter months, the researchers visit the bears' dens.

In part, the research is looking at human development of land and how it affects bear population trends.

While sitting at her desk, Johnson, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology, pull-ed up images mapping growth in Colorado. It showed a 64 percent increase during the 40-year period ending in 2010 in Colorado.

"It's no wonder we have issues (with bears)," Johnson said. "A lot of places that are great bear habitat are also great people habitat."

Initial findings from the study have in some ways debunked some of the theories shared by wildlife officials. The GPS collars have proven to be a game changer for their research.

"Every hour through the day, we see where the bears go and what they do," Johnson said.

There have been some surprising discoveries, including one sow that traveled more than 200 miles in two weeks to New Mexico to mate. The bear returned to Durango. The following year she moved back to New Mexico for 1 1/2 years and returned with her new cubs to Durango. The bear is currently living in a subdivision.

"Their navigational skills are pretty great," Johnson said.

Researchers found there are other adult females that have traveled great distances, something that has not been documented before.

"How many rivers did they have to cross?" Willmarth asked. "How many highways did they have to cross?"

Johnson pulled up the mapped movement of a bear identified as B25. During a bad natural food year in 2012, B25 B-lined from public lands to Durango, where she spent the rest of the summer and fall in a small area surviving off human foods. The next year, when there was a good natural food source, B25 returned to public lands.

Johnson said behavior by individual bears varies, and there are outliers. Some bears in Durango always made human foods their primary food source. Other bears, even in a bad food year, never came into the urban areas. And others use a mix of natural and human food.

"Most of the bears are behaving like we want them to," Johnson said.

Bears in the Steamboat area likely behave similarly to those in Durango, Yost said.

"Bears are like people," Yost said. "They all have personalities, and they each do different things."

Research from the Durango bear study was used in an article Johnson authored this spring in the journal of Biological Conservation.

"We suspected that resource selection by individual bears may demonstrate a functional response for development, whereby individuals with more human structures within their home range would display greater selection for development," Johnson wrote. "On the contrary, we found no relationship between these variables, but there was evidence that selection was related to the amount of development within a bear's year-specific late summer range. This suggests that bears do not use development simply in response to its availability, but dynamically alter their use of this resource on an annual basis."

People problems

Durango, like Steamboat, has its bear problems, but it also has people problems.

In May, the Durango Herald reported two men illegally camping near the Manna Soup Kitchen were bitten by a bear. The nearby soup kitchen feeds the homeless, and the homeless have camped in the area for years.

It was suspected the men who were attacked had food in their tents.

"We've had several bear attacks up there," Willmarth said.

The men recovered from their injuries.

Using dogs, wildlife officials later chased the bear up a tree and shot it.

Willmarth said when the bear was dissected, a tent tag was found in the bear's stomach.

Human behavior

When Johnson joined Colorado Parks and Wildlife about five years ago, bear-human conflict was a priority issue across the state and the Western United States. For a study, doing the fieldwork in Durango made sense.

Johnson said there was a healthy bear population, nearby public lands and bear-human conflict in Durango had been well documented. Also, all residential trash service in Durango was managed by one entity, the city of Durango. That made it easier for the researchers to work with residents and study their trash handling habits.

By contrast, in Steamboat, residential trash service is offered by the three businesses.

This past winter, the Steamboat Springs City Council came close to requiring residents to use bear-proof trash containers, but it ultimately decided not to, largely because of the costs that would be handed down to residents.

In Durango, the researchers rolled out a bear-proofing experiment, with one of the goals being to learn how effective it was to require bear-resistant trash containers.

"It's never really been put to the test," Johnson said. "Understanding how bears use human foods is very important."

The researchers set up a study site on the north and south sides of town. In those areas, the researchers distributed 1,100 bear-resistant trash containers to residents for free. Normally, the containers would cost each resident $200.

During the week, researcher Ryan Wilbur goes to the two trash study sites and documents compliance. Those results are compared to the same nearby neighborhoods, where bear-resistant containers were not given to residents.

Some residents, though, have opted to buy bear-proof containers through a program offered by the city. Residents can pay $4 each month and own the containers outright after four years.

The impact of rolling out bear-proof containers is still unclear, but there are signs those with bear-resistant containers are still having trouble using them correctly. The trash cans have to be locked until 6 a.m. Residents also have to remember to unlock the containers.

Johnson said those with bear-resistant containers in the study areas are only complying 50 percent of the time.

"That's kind of the disappointing thing," Johnson said.

That is also discouraging to Yost, who worked on a bear population study for a 5,178-square-mile area encompassing parts of Routt, Moffat and Jackson counties. On average, Yost found there was one bear per four square miles.

In prime habitat, such as the creeks that run through Steamboat Springs, the number of bears could be much higher.

When it comes to stricter trash rules in Steamboat, Yost said every bit would help if people were better about complying with the rules.

"Bears are just doing what bears do, and we blame the bears," Yost said. "We kind of lure them in, and they just do what they naturally do."

Yost said there will likely again be resistance if the city required every resident to use a bear-proof trash container, which cost hundreds of dollars.

"They either can't afford it, or don't want to pay the money for a more expensive trash can," Yost said. "I'm skeptical that we're actually going to get enough compliance from people."

Trash: A community issue

Despite ramped up efforts to make sure trash is secured in Steamboat Springs, it was obvious last week that a lot of people still are not following the rules.

"I think it's really important for the town to know it's not a one-person issue," said Andrea Sponseller, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager in Steamboat Springs. "It's a community issue."

During the first six months of this year, the Steamboat Springs Police Department has issued six citations and 19 warnings related to trash violations. During the same period in 2014, the department issued two citations and two warnings.

"We have stepped up enforcement and have had a increased amount of public awareness in regards to the bear situation," police Capt. Jerry Stabile said. "We think that the community is headed in the right direction."

So far this year, Parks and Wildlife has euthanized four bears that got into homes or other structures in search of food. One bear ripped the door off a detached garage. At Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp just outside Steamboat, a bear got into the kitchen area and ripped a door off. At a Steamboat home, a bear opened a door using the lever-style handle and stole bacon from the freezer. The resident discovered the bear in her yard eating the bacon. The fourth destroyed bear bent up a door and tried to get into a home on Buckskin Drive.

During a ride-along with Sponseller, she toured the areas of town where bears and trash have been an issue.

The first stop was Central Park Plaza, where Sponseller found one dumpster that had a lid propped open with a shovel.

"These dumpsters need to be locked all the time," she said.

Another dumpster at Central Park recently had its lids ravaged by a bear.

At The Pines condominiums next door, Sponseller had a photo that a resident had taken earlier that morning showing heaps of trash around the dumpster.

"These guys have gotten quite a bit better about securing their trash, but they're still not there yet," Sponseller said.

Sponseller then toured the downtown dumpsters. In the alley between Lincoln Avenue and Oak Street and Sixth and Seventh streets, none of the dumpsters were secured. The dumpster behind City Hall had a lid open, which Sponseller closed and secured.

More than half of all the downtown dumpsters were not secured properly.

"I think this would at least be a good starting point for dealing with this issue," Sponseller said.

She then headed further west to the Dream Island mobile home park, where trash service is included in the monthly rent residents pay.

"None of these cans are approved to be stored outside," Sponseller said. "These guys don't have the capability to store them inside, so they've got to store them outside."

In a single night last week, a bear hit 13 trash cans in the neighborhood.

"What's going on over there is not working, that's for sure," Sponseller said.

When Sponseller visited, there was trash pulled out of two of the cans.

There are some success stories in Steamboat when it comes to trash.

At the Selbe Apartments along Fish Creek, there used to be constant problems with bears. An enclosure was then built that made it virtually impossible for bears to even access the dumpster. The residents have not had any bear problems since.

Sponseller then drove out to The Ranch at Steamboat, a condo complex that sits on 36 acres. Outside each of the buildings, steel, bear-proof trash and recycling bins have been installed on concrete pads.

"I think this really shows initiative," Sponseller said.

See more photos accompanying the story here:

Black bears at a glance

■ With their bulky fur coats, bears can look bigger

than they are. Males average 275 pounds.; females average 175 pounds.

■ More than 90 percent of a bear’s natural diet is grasses, berries, fruits, nuts and plants. The rest is primarily insects and scavenged carcasses.

■ Black bears are very wary of people and other unfamiliar things. Their normal response to any per­ceived danger is to run away or climb a tree.

■ Most Colorado bears are active from mid-March through early November. When food sources dwindle, they head for winter dens.

■ With a nose that’s 100 times more sensitive than ours, a bear can literally smell food five miles away.

■ Bears are very smart and have great memories — once they find food, they come back for more.

■ During late summer and early fall, bears need 20,000 calories per day to gain enough fat to survive the winter without eating or drinking.

■ Bears are not naturally nocturnal but sometimes travel at night in hopes of avoiding humans.

— Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

If you surprise a bear on a trail

Black bears are highly intelligent, with individual responses to people and situations. Wild black bears seldom attack unless they feel threatened, cornered or are provoked.

■ Stand still, stay calm and let the bear identify you and leave. ■ Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route.

■ Never run or climb a tree.

■ If you see cubs, their mother is usually close by. Leave the area immediately.

If the bear doesn’t leave:

■ A bear standing up is just trying to identify what you are by getting a better look and smell.

■ Wave your arms slowly overhead and talk calmly. If the bear huffs, pops it jaws or stomps a paw, it wants you to give it space.

■ Step off the trail to the downhill side, keep looking at the bear and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight.

If the bear approaches:

■ A bear knowingly approaching a person could be a food-conditioned bear looking for a handout or, very rarely, an aggressive bear. Stand your ground. Yell or throw small rocks in the direction of the bear.

■ Get out your bear spray and use it when the bear is about 40 feet away.

■ If you’re attacked, don’t play dead. Fight back with anything available. People have successfully defended them­selves with pen knives, trekking poles and even bare hands.

— Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Residential customers:

■ Residential refuse customers must have a wildlife resistant refuse container if the container is left outside. Resistant refuse containers have clips or latches that, if latched properly, prevent magpies, dogs and small wildlife from opening the lids.

■ If the container is broken into by bears or other wildlife, the container will need to be upgraded to an approved bear-proof container.

■ Residential customers may leave their refuse containers curbside only between 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on their trash pick-up day.

■ Residential owners or the owners’ agent will be held liable for non-compliance of the ordinance. This includes vacation home rentals that utilize residential service.

Residential fines schedule: $250 first offense, $500 second offense, $750 third offense.

Commercial customers:

■ Industrial containers must be bear proof with lids, locking bars, and the bar must be secured with lock, clip or similar devise.

■ If the container is not secured, then the customer may incur the fine.

■ If multiple businesses share an industrial container, then the owner of the property or the owner’s agent (management company, HOA) will incur the fine and consequences.

■ If the industrial container was properly secured and still breached, then an upgrade will be required.

Commercial fine schedule: $250 first offense, $500 second offense, $750 third offense.