Steamboat Council moves towards requiring bear-resistant trash containers |

Steamboat Council moves towards requiring bear-resistant trash containers

A bear battles a trash can in June 2019 along Fish Creek Falls Road in Steamboat Springs.
Shannon Lukens/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Hoping to make significance progress by the time the bears wake up, Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 14, reviewed the first draft of an ordinance requiring residents and businesses to use bear-resistant trash cans and dumpsters. Council plans a first reading of the ordinance in February.

Detailing studies in Durango (2011-17) and Aspen (2006-11), Dr. Stewart Breck gave council a presentation on how similar efforts played out in those two communities.

Breck lives in Fort Collins and is a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Wildlife Research Center.

Breck described some key findings found in both studies.

Food availability

First, bad natural food years, caused by things like drought and early frost, had a very significant impact on how much “bears sought out alternative food sources and came into towns/developed areas to forage on things like garbage, bird feeders, fruit from fruit trees and pet food.”

Using graphics showing bear activity around Durango, the years with food failures gave evidence of tremendously increased activity in town. In a good natural food year, they largely stayed away. “It all shifts,” he said.

And those years when bears aren’t finding enough natural sources of food are only going to increase, according to the study.

However, they found bears tend to switch back to their natural source in subsequent good food years. This finding dispels the idea that “once a problem bear, always a problem bear,” according to the report.

If you go

What: Steamboat Springs City Council Lunch & Listen
When: Noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 17
Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.

“They really don’t want to be in town,” Breck said.

Both studies also showed when bears interact more with humans and human development, there is an increase of bears dying — from vehicle collisions, euthanasia and accidents.

“For example,” the study cites, “around Durango, we estimated that the female bear population declined by 57% after a major natural food failure during the summer/fall of 2012.”

“These urban areas really impact bear populations,” Breck said.

Garbage to blame

It is garbage, Breck explained, that is the overwhelming reason bears forage in areas of human development.

But when both communities took steps to clean up and make their trash containers more bear resistant, the behavior of bears changed.

Following an experiment in Durango, “we found that there was a 50% difference the probability of having a trash conflict in treatment versus control areas,” according to the study. “It appears that if the food benefit for bears around towns is reduced, they are not willing to incur greater risk by foraging around people.”

It was getting humans to change their behavior that proved more challenging, Breck said.

In Aspen, several campaigns were waged to see if people would proactively take steps to limit garbage access for bears. They put up signs, and they sent out bear-aware educators into the community.

“Signage had no impact on what people did,” Breck told council.

And the bear-aware campaign? “Almost zero influence,” Breck reported.

Tickets from law enforcement, without fines, had no impact, he said.

Once they got more serious about enforcement, things started to change.

“This finding further supports the notion that fundamental changes in city waste management practices are necessary to induce public compliance,” according to the report.

Even then, the researchers found it necessary to provide additional educational efforts on actually latching the bear-resistant containers.

However the education piece is still “super important for getting the community on board,” Breck said. But it is by no means a panacea.

Breck said it is important to make sure the new trash containers match the equipment for the trash haulers and acknowledged that it can require haulers to have to change their infrastructure.

During a November workshop, City Council set the following goals around the issue of bears: “Zero euthanized bears, zero human/bear conflicts that result in harm, significant reduction in bear calls to Steamboat Springs Police Department.” Educational outreach and the consideration of bear-resistant trash containers were also part of their priorities for consideration.

Breck stated the “zero” goals may not be realistic — it is the best solution for some bears who get aggressive to be euthanized, he said.

Container upgrade issues

On cost of container upgrades, city staff presented council with the following research: “The preferred container by the trash haulers retails between $230 up to $340 and is certified as bear resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Trash haulers can prefabricate steel reinforced plastic lids for dumpsters as well as provide metal lids with two sliders within each lid. This price can vary from $85 (metal reinforced plastic lid) up to $650 (metal lids with sliders) depending on the price of steel.”

During the public comment session, Marlin Mullet, CEO of Twin Enviro Services argued, “Trash haulers don’t generate refuse. We don’t generate the attractant. We just haul it. Your ordinance is intended for people who generate the attractants. And yet, the haulers are being penalized for it. According to your ordinance, it’s us who are going to have to go to our customers and upcharge them — increase their fees, charge them for their can — whatever we do. We’re going to be the bad guys in this.”

Mullet also expressed concern about the upfront cost to replace inventory, take all old cans off the market and about being required to replace damaged cans within seven days.  The approach, he said, is “onerous to haulers when I don’t believe we are cause of problem.”

Twin Enviro Resources owner Les Liman said he estimated a $1 million to $2 million impact to his company to upgrade carts and dumpsters.

He also noted the burden brought on by the collapse in the recycling market — which has led to an increased burden on both the haulers and the customers.

Liman echoed the concern about replacing damaged cans and urged all stakeholders to come together to find a solution.

Jeb Hensley, district manager for Waste Management of Colorado, said Twin Enviro had some legitimate concerns about the cost and timeline of the rollout, but he was more accepting of the new ordinance. Hensley said he preferred to supply the containers to control which container people had, so he could control which piece of equipment picked it up.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager Kris Middledorf acknowledged there were still things to be worked out but said he supported the effort. He said studies in Vail and Boulder showed results in line with Breck’s.

City Council had more questions about implementation and minimal changes to the language of the draft ordinance. They said they anticipated complaints from the public, but urged engagement — with the first opportunity set for Friday at their “Lunch and Listen” program.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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