‘It’s not a bear problem; it’s a human problem’
A black bear has made the subdivisions of Steamboat II and Silver Spur home for the past three years with little impact on his human neighbors, but during a dry summer, the bruin is very hungry and making its presence known.
Some residents living in the neighborhoods west of Steamboat Springs say they’re worried the bear has exhibited more brash behavior this month, such as entering an open garage during the afternoon and pulling bags of trash out of an open trash can. However, wildlife officials say daytime activity is not uncommon for a hungry bear, especially during a drought.
Residents of the neighborhoods, which are located in Routt County outside the city limits and do not require bear-resistant trash containers, are finding homemade efforts to secure trash containers inadequate. The hungry bear has thwarted makeshift protective measures and taken advantage of unsecured trash this month.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager Kris Middledorf said his office has received an increase in bear calls within the past three weeks spread across the community, partially propelled by the drought conditions but also fueled by residents’ careless actions.
“That bear is there (in Steamboat II) because people have their trash out,” Middledorf said, “CPW is not going to relocate a bear because it’s getting into people’s trash. We need to take proactive steps as a community to minimize and prevent bears becoming habituated. It’s not about trapping bears; we have to learn to co-exist with these animals.”
CPW officials in Steamboat note they receive calls from people in the city asking for a bear to be relocated. Officials urge residents to do a better job of eliminating food rewards for the animals because relocating a bear is a last resort.
“We have no place to put bears where they will not get into trouble again or just return to where we moved them from,” Steamboat CPW officials posted July 16 on the agency’s Facebook page. “There is no ‘bear haven’ that we can just go stick them. Once a bear is caught and tagged once (with two ear tags), per policy, it has to be euthanized if it gets into trouble, again. Removing a bear without the human resident changing behavior will just lead to another bear coming in for the food reward — trash, BBQs, birdfeeders, pet food, fruiting trees and bushes and unlocked cars and homes.”
Middledorf said protecting and living with bears “requires full community efforts,” such as everyone in a neighborhood with a shared trash dumpster always locking the dumpster at all hours. He said CPW has seen some good efforts locally, but there’s still room for improvement.
In May 2020, Steamboat Springs City Council passed an ordinance to phase in the requirement for residents and businesses to keep trash in bear-resistant containers, dumpsters or enclosures that are certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Local waste haulers were required to replace 25% of trash containers and dumpsters with bear-resistant versions by March 31 of this year. The city ordinance requires 50% of containers to be exchanged by March 31, 2022, and 100% by March 31, 2023.
“Bear-resistant trash containers do work,” Middledorf said. “It’s important that people utilize bear-resistant containers and place the bins inside a garage or shed. We need to do whatever it takes not to feed a bear.”
Twin Enviro Services has met the 25% requirement after purchasing 1,080 bear-resistant rolling trash carts so far and swapping out 800 of the 96-gallon and 50 of the 64-gallon residential trash carts to date, said Jen Mendez, in marketing at Twin Enviro. Mendez said the majority of the company’s commercial dumpsters have reinforced plastic lids and metal locking bars, but she noted the slightly more expensive dumpsters with metal sliding lids are proving more successful in keeping out bears.
Waste Management Communications Director Jennifer Wargo said the company has swapped out almost 30% of residential containers and more than 95% of commercial dumpsters in Steamboat.
Residential bear-resistant containers are leased to customers by the waste haulers for $10 to $13 more per month, and the cans are owned and replaced as necessary by the trash haulers. Those containers used by Twin Enviro and Waste Management have an online base price of $240 to $299 without shipping and taxes.
Mike Lane, city of Steamboat Springs communications manager, said it’s hard to say if the ordinance itself has altered the number of bear calls.
“We believe it’s rather a combination of education, outreach, enforcement, as well as CPW and haulers working together to target high incident areas during rollout that is having the greatest impact,” Lane said. “However, with the scarcity of food due to drought, the community will need to have a heightened awareness this fall, as bears become extremely active and work to put on enough weight to make it through winter.”
Steamboat Springs Police Department statistics show a variable number of bear calls to the police since 2012; however, 2020 showed a record number of 387 calls and 323 in 2019. Year-to-date calls through Tuesday hit 278.
Middledorf said the higher number of calls likely shows a combination of increase in resident education in addition to more bears growing up in town. Unfortunately, those town-bred bears become habituated to humans easier and are more at risk of eventual relocation or euthanizing by CPW, he said.
Although some local residents may have become hesitant to call CPW unless a bear situation is overwhelming due to fear of endangering the bear’s longevity, Middledorf said CPW does want to hear from residents having issues with bears, so officers can make informed decisions about where to focus education efforts and to make good management decisions about bears that are in and around Steamboat. Currently “understaffed and overwhelmed,” Middledorf said local CPW officers are pressed for time to be very proactive about education efforts.
Bear watchers say the bruins are tempted by human trash even more during the drought. Natural berry production is down by at least 50% this year, said Mary O’Brien, part-time naturalist with nonprofit Yampatika. O’Brien said a frost in early June plus the current hot and dry conditions reduced berry production.
“If berries do ripen, they will not be nice, plump nutrition,” said O’Brien, noting she advises humans to only sample berries this year and not harvest large amounts to leave more for wildlife.
Steamboat resident Michael Turner, who lives near Steamboat Boulevard, said he also has seen fewer berries locally.
“On the sarvisberry trees around my house, usually there are so many berries, it is almost a nuisance, but this year, it’s almost nil,” Turner said.
Turner said he continues to notice numerous trash issues this summer when out on daily morning walks, noting bear-protection devices not in use, overflowing trash cans set out overnight and lack of attention to the bear ordinance from second-home owners and part-time residents.
“I just get frustrated. If everybody would take care of their trash, we would have a lot fewer bear issues in town,” said Turner, who has lived locally for decades. “It’s not a bear problem; it’s a human problem.”
CPW received 4,943 bear reports statewide in 2020, starting on Jan. 3 in Aspen and ending on Dec. 29 in Aurora. So far this year, the local CPW office has written reports for 117 bear calls that have either been called into CPW directly or been relayed through county dispatch, Middledorf said.
CPW officials say trash ordinances can be effective if properly exercised and accompanied by sound public messaging and strict enforcement. Officials also say the ordinances work best when consistent between nearby municipalities. CPW has a statewide regulation making it unlawful for anyone to fail to avoid conflict with black bears.
“Trash continues to be the No. 1 cause for human-bear conflict in Colorado. One-third of all bear reports have trash documented as an attractant involved,” according to CPW.
The Steamboat ordinance requires all dumpsters to remain “closed and secured when refuse is not being deposited” and requires residential customers to hold off putting out trash cans until 6 a.m. the day of pickup.
Both Waste Management and Twin Enviro currently have bear-resistant trash containers in stock.
The city will provide a $100 annual subsidy to help with bear-resistant container costs through Dec. 31, 2022, for individuals and families who qualify for federal low-income assistance programs. Lane said those requests can be processed through the City Manager’s Office, but so far no one has applied.
Middledorf said CPW has a $25,000 grant to help secure bear-resistant containers to try to assist underserved neighborhoods in town. More information can be found at the Lock Your Lid webpage at SteamboatSprings.net/502/trash-containers.
CPW Living With Bears information is available at CPW.State.co.us/bears.
Owners of Bear Block in Hayden report they are headed back later this summer to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee facility in Montana for bear testing and hopeful approval of the company’s latest design of bear-resistant trash lids, which will provide an automatic opening feature required by local waste haulers.
The original Bear Block retrofit attachment for residential trash polycarts, which are nonautomated, is priced at $220, including installation, and they are IGBC approved. However, the current lids are not allowed by local trash haulers, said Bear Block co-owner Nicole Nanio.
Nanio said the nonautomated lid was a hit a few years ago, but as waste companies work to keep staff costs in check, automated opening lids are now the norm.
“We slowed down as we tried to perfect the next design, and we are in the final phases,” Nanio said. “It’s just a battle with the way the industry is moving so quickly.”
Bear Block representatives will travel to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone on Aug. 20 and 21 to see if a grizzly bear can tear open the retrofitted can in an allotted timeframe.
The new Bear Block model, if certified in August, should be available for purchase later in 2021, and the owners are hopeful the cost will be less than $220, including install on existing trash polycarts.
The company is owned by partners Nanio, Rollin Stone and Ryan Overstake.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Routt County parents Bryan and Karen Bomberg are open about the cause of death of their adult son in November because they hope other parents will not have to experience that grief.