Bear encounters increase as summer ends in Vail Valley
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Last September, Eric Mosher was unpacking his car after returning home from a trip to Mexico when he experienced a bear encounter he will never forget.
“This bear cub came running down the sidewalk and bolted through the open front door of my place,” said Mosher.
From outside his apartment, Mosher could hear the animal rustling around as he placed a call to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
“We had some steaks sitting on the counter and he jumped up and ate them. Then he figured out the fridge,” Mosher said. That discovery had to be the bear equivalent of hitting the Lotto.
“Once he figured out there was plenty of food in the fridge, he just sat there. We could walk right up to him,” said Mosher.
Eventually wildlife officers arrived and the bear was removed from the premises.
“There’s nothing like coming home from Mexico, all hungry and tired, and finding a bear in your house,” said Mosher.
Maybe not, but September and October is the time of year when bear/human contact peaks. For both, these interactions can be frightening or even fatal. But it is definitely more likely that a bear will have to pay a high price for any interaction.
“There’s no doubt that there are more interactions between people and bears than there used to be,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife Manager Craig Wescoatt. “There are people where there didn’t used to be people, or bird feeders and trash cans in areas where they didn’t use to be.”
Wescoatt said local bears are entering their hyperphasia period – the time when they fatten up for their winter hibernation.
“They are feeding about 20 hours of the day,” he said.
Normally the animals forage for serviceberries, chokecherries or raspberries, but bears are bright animals. Too many of them figure out that trash cans provide tasty, easily accessible food. From there, bears are also quick to discover pet food left outside or coolers in vehicles. They can even master the skill of opening a house door with just a little practice.
“Bears are very smart animals, they adapt well,” said Wescoatt. “If you don’t’ want a bear in your car or your house, you are going to have to lock your doors and close your windows.”
Wescoatt advises that humans take extra care during the next couple of months so that bears can make it through to hibernation. That can happen any time between late October and early December.
“Bears kind of sense how much body fat they need to get through the winter,” he noted.
Their need to feed brings bears to unlikely locales, places such as the Eagle fire house.
A few years back, during an otherwise quiet afternoon at the Eagle Fire Station, one of the community service workers yelled out to Fire Chief Jon Asper that his dog Zeus was drinking from a toilet.
But Asper had left his dog at home that day. When he walked over to investigate, he saw a bear lapping water from the toilet bowl.
The offending animal had been spotted earlier in the day atop a local roof. “He had been on that hot roof all day long and he just wanted a drink,” said Asper. “When I saw him he turned around, gave me a dirty look and walked out the door.
“That bear was just hot and tired and he wasn’t trying to cause any trouble. But he wasn’t impressed with humans either. He just left, walked up the sidewalk and made his way over toward the river,” said Asper.
That was a lucky bear. When the Division of Wildlife is called in to remove a bear from someplace it shouldn’t be, the animal is subject to a one-strike policy. On a first complaint, a bear is sedated and relocated as far as possible from the area where it was found.
“If a bear gets into trouble a second time, it is called the second strike and it is euthanized,” said Wescoatt.
Bears who act aggressively, such as the one that broke into an Aspen home recently and attacked the homeowner, aren’t given the benefit of doubt. Those animals are immediately euthanized.
Bears can’t help being bears, but people can take some simple precautions to minimize interactions. One of the easiest is to simply keep trash cans inside the garage until trash pick-up day. Wescoatt noted Eagle County has been progressive in requiring bear proof trash containers for multi-family or commercial developments.
And he offered some basic advice for anyone who comes upon a bear. If the encounter happens in the outdoors, Wescoatt advises making noise to alert the bear. Continue facing the animal but don’t make eye contact. Back way while continuing to make noise and don’t put yourself between the bear and its escape route.
If you encounter a bear in your house, don’t box in the animal. Back away and let the animal exit the way it came inside.
While camping, keep food inside locked vehicles or hung up in trees. Don’t keep your cooler in your tent.
For more information about living with bears, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife website at http://wildlife.state.co.us/.