Steamboat Springs sets a goal of zero dead bears due to human trash
Editor’s note: This story was corrected at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to correct Mike Middleton’s title.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The city of Steamboat Springs and area wildlife officials hope Routt County’s black bears wake up to secured trash cans and less access to human food.
On Tuesday, Nov. 12, the city kicked off a revamp of policies intended to keep bears and humans safe, particularly revising city trash ordinances to prevent bears from breaking into residents’ refuse. Steamboat Springs City Council members hope to have policy changes in place before bears emerge from hibernation next spring.
“It’s kind of sneaky, but we need to talk about this while the bears are asleep,” said City Manager Gary Suiter in the meeting.
“They don’t get to make public comment on this one,” added council member Robin Crossan.
Tuesday’s discussion was the first of several anticipated to come before City Council this winter.
In the meeting, council members set goals to reduce conflict between humans and bears in Steamboat:
- Zero bears euthanized as a result of interaction with humans, including human-created food sources
- Zero conflicts between bears and people that result in physical harm
- A reduction in bear-related calls to Steamboat Springs Police Department and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers
The city also agreed to request presentations from two bear researchers involved in a study of conflicts between humans and bears in Durango.
Kris Middledorf, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, presented information in the meeting about how the agency responds to nuisance bears and the number of bear calls the agency has responded to over the past 24 years.
In total, 26 bears died in 2018 in the area, which includes Routt and Jackson counties, by means other than hunting, and that number has increased in the last decade. This includes bears euthanized by Parks and Wildlife, bears hit by cars and problem bears on agricultural lands killed by landowners or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife damage program.
In the meeting, Middledorf said the agency generally traps and relocates nuisance bears that threaten property, while the agency euthanizes bears that are aggressive, dangerous or continue to be a nuisance after relocation. As bears become habituated to human food sources, including accessible trash, they can become aggressive as they lose their fear of people.
At least one Routt County bear was euthanized this summer after it destroyed a beehive after being relocated outside of the Meeker area.
Of the 319 total bear calls Steamboat police responded to, 37 resulted in a citation, and 11 resulted in a warning, according to documents presented in the meeting.
“I believe we also have a responsibility to protect our children and families and neighbors from dangerous wildlife, and I’m not trying to say that bears are bad, or mountain lions,” Middledorf said. “But when we have a 350-pound black bear feeling very comfortable walking by Strawberry Park Elementary School, or by Soda Creek, and their main reason for being in town is because they’re habituated to human-supplied trash and that’s the easiest place to find calories, then I think we have a responsibility to try to keep that bear away from those attractants.”
Current city ordinances require residents and businesses store trash and recycling in a wildlife-resistant container if it is stored outside. Those without wildlife-resistant trash cans must place them outside for pick up after 6 a.m. and bring them inside by 8 p.m.
“When it’s out there for 14 hours, it’s still an attractant, and again, bears are active day and night,” Middledorf said. “Law enforcement is a key component of changing behavior, but the question is, ‘Is it manageable?’”
Both Middledorf and Suiter emphasized that responding to bears in trash is an inefficient use of wildlife and police officers, respectively. Both also recommended education as a mechanism to reduce conflicts between humans and bears.
Middledorf recommended the city require all refuse be contained in containers certified as bear-resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
In public comment, Jeb Hensley, a district manager for Waste Management, said the company is “very experienced” in hauling trash from wildlife-resistant containers. Waste Management services Aspen, the Vail Valley and other resort towns that have wildlife-container ordinances.
“We’ll be here when you’re a little further along and keep an eye on what you want to do,” he said.
In public comment, Mike Middleton thanked the City Council for taking on the issues.
“It’s not ever going to be solved, but we can make it better,” he said.
Middleton formerly worked as the district wildlife manager for the Steamboat area.
Cedar Beauregard, a member of Keep Routt Wild, said the organization had compiled “a pretty substantial list” of people willing to volunteer to help tackle the issue.
The next meeting on the issue will likely take place in January.
To view the City Council’s discussion on this topic and documents presented at the meeting, visit steamboatsprings.net/agendas.
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