EAGLE COUNTY — If you’ve ever wondered where the phrase “hungry as a bear” came from, then try not eating for a few months.
Bears in the area are waking up from their winter naps — it’s not technically hibernation — and the pounds they packed on in the fall are long gone. That means the animals are looking for food just about anywhere they can find it. As opposed to pandas — which will starve if there isn’t bamboo nearby — Colorado’s black bears aren’t terribly picky if natural food isn’t available and are willing to wander. They’re also smart and opportunistic, meaning they’ll raid anything from a bird feeder to a dumpster if they’re hungry, despite a natural aversion to humans.
Add that with the fact that humans have increasingly invaded the black bears’ natural habitat, and you get the potential for conflict. Most of the time, bears lose those conflicts — the state of Colorado’s policy is that a problem bear will be captured, tagged and relocated once. If that tagged bear is captured a second time, it’s euthanized.
To keep those conflicts to a minimum, there are wildlife regulations in place in Vail, Avon and other areas that require people to keep their trash locked up in “wildlife-resistant” containers. Where possible, people are required to keep their trash cans locked inside garages until trash day. Businesses, as well as apartment and condo complexes, are required to have their trash containers in locked outdoor enclosures.
People are also asked to keep their grills inside when not in use, and to bring in bird feeders at night.
Those ordinances have helped cut down on bear reports — and conflicts.
BEARS IN VAIL
In Vail this year, Daric Harvey, police commander, said there have been only a few reports of bears in neighborhoods. One bear was struck by a vehicle along Interstate 70 last week.
The town’s code enforcement officers have also responded to numerous reports of residents violating at least some of the bear rules.
Most of the time, a visit from an officer results in a warning. So far this year, officers have issued nine citations and written dozens of warnings.
BEARS IN AVON
In Avon, Greg Daly, police lieutenant, said there has been only one bear sighting so far this year — ironically, in the sage and pinon of the Wildridge neighborhood, instead of the neighborhoods along the Eagle River that generate most reports. Daly said a few warnings and fewer citations issued so far this season.
And this season seems to be starting later than the past couple of springs. Bears don’t have set sleep schedules, but instead wake up when warmer weather arrives. In 2012, a historically dry year, the bears awoke early and had little natural food, which sent them wandering into neighborhoods where they’re rarely seen, especially in downvalley communities.
In more normal years, though, the bears stay higher, which means upper-valley communities tend to have more sightings. But bear ordinances passed over the past few years seem to be having an effect.
Harvey said “without a doubt” Vail’s ordinance has helped, especially as the public has become more aware of the rules. Even in 2012, there were just five citations written, in a year when there were 123 bear calls, the most by far since 2009.
In Avon, Daly agreed that the town’s wildlife ordinance has helped cut down on the number of reports.
“Issues with bears have definitely dropped,” since the law’s passage, he said.
Mike Porras the Western Slope public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said ordinances other places around the high country have had a similar effect and encouraged people to continue to follow the guidelines for living in bear country.
“When you live in this part of Colorado, the possibility of a bear coming around is pretty good,” Porras said. “People need to get educated about conflicts.”
That’s good for everyone, from bears to residents to wildlife officers, Porras said.
“If you talk to any officer, he’ll tell you the worst part of his job is having to euthanize a bear,” Porras said. “People need to know that enjoying wildlife comes with responsibilities.”