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Bears abound

Geraldine Haldner

Bears in places where humans dwell, almost always spell trouble.

Not that the beautiful bruins are looking for mischief, but as they head into the feeding frenzy months of September and October – eating as much as 20,000 calories a day to fatten up for hibernation – the numbers of bear-human encounters on groomed lawns and breezy porches are likely to rise.

Vail has already encountered what some call a record season for human-bear encounters.

The first six months of 2002, had officers respond to 134 bear calls – almost one a day – an enormous increase over bear problems recorded last summer.

“The number of bear calls has nearly tripled from a year ago,” says Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, who asked the Vail Town Council in early August to pass a wildlife protection ordinance to protect bears as well as humans, through education and with a nuisance law for repeat offenders.

The new measure went into effect 12 days ago and provides that people who make it easy for bears and other wildlife to forage from trash, dog food or bird feeders, can be cited into court after one initial warning.

It’s actually fair and equal treatment, considering that bears, tagged as problem bears by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, are destroyed if they return to residential areas a second time.

“We won’t put a tag on you and take you back to California,” says Vail Police Officer Matt Lindvall in jest before turning serious.

“My goal and the goal of this department is to never have to write a summons. That would mean that people understand the problem and that we have done our job and the ordinance serves its purpose.”

Lindvall, who has been with the Vail Police Department for 23 years and has become the department’s “bear guy” has been seeing as many as 12 calls a day from residents encountering a bear.

Sundays and Mondays, he says are busier than other days – likely because trash cans are moved to the curb in anticipation of trash pickup – by people getting the last weekend errand out of the way and by second homeowners and visitors making sure the trash is picked up after they make their way out of town.

Over the last two weekends the numbers of bear calls have slightly dropped – on this serene, sunny Sunday, for example not a call has come in – but Lindvall credits a “fair berry crop” with that and expects the number to go up again as bears get ready for six months of hibernation.

He thinks the new set of regulations are reasonable and designed to be more “of an educational tool than an enforcement weapon.”

Property owners or residents found in violation of the town’s new wildlife protection ordinance – be it a unsecured trash can, left-out dog food, an accessible bird feeder or a trash can placed at the curb days too early – are handed a warning that explains the law and asked them to mitigate the problem. The responding officer, generates a record of the warming and in case of a second violation for the same offense and a citation into Vail Municipal Court is issued.

“It’s kind of like us saying you can punch this guy once, but the second time we are going to arrest you,” Lindvall says, adding that the real goal is “a benefit to all.”

“If it’s not there, the bears can’t mess it up, and if the trash is secured it won’t end up scattered along the street for someone to pick it up,” he says.

With time – Lindvall doesn’t expect the effect to be immediate – bears will look for food elsewhere and people won’t have to barricade themselves in rooms, while an opportunistic ursine is raiding their pantry.

“We had one guy a while ago, who said “I really like chocolate ice cream and so does this bear'” Lindvall says, adding that residents shouldn’t shy from calling for help for fear of a citation.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of bear calls,” he says. “We are really trying to identify the problems that can be taken care of. We aren’t out looking to hassle people.”

Bears, Lindvall likes to remind residents, were “here first” and because of that, he says, they get “special treatment.”

When called, officers apply the “aversion therapy” generating lots of noise to chase bears away. “I yell “bad bear,'” says Lindvall. “I use the same approach I use on my dog, just with less profanities.”

If that doesn’t work, bears may be shown the way back to the woods with a pellet-type ammunition that shatters on impact and distributes a good portion of pepper spray on an unruly ursine.

Training bears to not depend on human refuse will take time and consistency. If the town’s new regulation reduces the time edible waste is left in the open and limits other feeding opportunities, bears with time will learn to go elsewhere.

“We have to teach people not to supply the food and we have to teach bears that it’s not there,” Lindvall says. “If we can do that with this ordinance it is going to greatly reduce the numbers of bears will see roaming through neighborhoods.”

Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com


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