Bears may increase visits as winter nears
EAGLE COUNTY – Tim Szurgot knew better than to leave trash out for bears to get into, but he wasn’t prepared for what happened to him this July.While away from his home in Bellyache Ridge, he left two bottles of Gatorade sitting out inside a screened-in porch. According to his neighbors, a bear tore through the screen, climbed inside, grabbed the bottles and then sat in Szurgot’s driveway and guzzled them both. Not only did Szurgot lose a few groceries, the bear had made a mess of the porch.”That’s something you wouldn’t really think about,” Szurgot said. “I know about garbage and grills, you know about leaving windows open. But two Gatorades in a screened-in porch?”Wildlife officials are reporting numerous human encounters with bears this summer. Those encounters could increase in the next month or so as bears begin to forage more aggressively for food before they hibernate for the winter. Wildlife officials are urging residents to be even more diligent about keeping tempting trash and other food supplies away from bears.”There is a continued feeling by some that it is not a big deal if a bear gets (into) my bird feeder or trash once in a while, but we know that the cumulative effect to the bear is a death sentence,” said Mark Lamb, district wildlife manage for the state’s Division of Wildlife.
While rainy weather this summer resulted in good bear habitat, late freezes and the persistent drought are forcing bears to search farther and harder for needed calories. As summer comes to an end, bears will begin to eat more intensively to pack on as many pounds as they can before winter. During the summer months, a bear will consume some 15,000 to 20,000 calories, helping them gain 20 to 30 percent in body weight before hibernating, said Todd Malmsbury, division of wildlife spokesman.When bears have learned to associate food with humans, it increases the likelihood that someone could be injured, Malmsbury said. Nuisance bears – those that are repeatedly caught near humans – are often destroyed.”Initially, they are hungry and they are searching far and wide,” Malmsbury said. “They start to find food around houses. At first they are wary, but they will check out this food. The more often they find the food the more comfortable they are with houses.”Human food, pet food and birdseed can be a great source of fat for bears and is easier to digest than the acorns and berries found in the wild. A few cubs with a taste for non-dairy coffee creamer have been causing havoc near Fairplay because they have been breaking through windows, trailers, buildings and sheds to reach their treat of choice. Killing a bear is a last resort for wildlife officers when relocating the bear doesn’t work.”That’s not why wildlife officers took this job,” Malmsbury said. Earlier this month, wildlife officers killed a bear near Westcliffe after it had broken into more than 30 trailers and cabins. Wildlife officials said a woman who had once lived in the region had apparently been feeding the bear since it was a cub and the bear learned to associate cabins and trailers with food.And as if you needed another reason to get mad at your neighbor, consider this: “One homeowner in a subdivision with 50 homes who leaves food and trash laying around can encourage a bear to break into surrounding homes,” Malmsbury said. The job of wildlife officers is to be reactive, not proactive. Which is why the burden of responsibility for preventing bear and human encounters falls on residents, communities and counties, he said.
Vail passed an ordinance two years ago forbidding residents from putting their trash out until the morning of their pick-up day. Anyone caught leaving their trash out earlier, even overnight, could be cited and fined, said Vail Police Sgt. Kurt Mulson. The law has been a success.”The number of reports are down 80 percent – it’s huge. We’re just taking away the food source,” he said. Malmsbury said bear ordinances work when they are enforced. As proof, he recalled the summer of 2000. The Roaring Fork Valley – roughly between Aspen and Glenwood Springs – suffered a severe drought coupled with a late spring freeze that killed off much of the bears’ food sources. Neighborhoods in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale reported several bears. Snowmass Village, however, had passed an ordinance in 1994. They reported far few problems.There have been numerous bear sightings in Avon this summer, but that isn’t necessarily unusual, said Avon Police Chief Jeff Layman. The town passed an ordinance similar to Vail’s that went into effect Wednesday. Residents who leave their trash out will be warned first, then fined. Fines will range from $100 to $1,000, Layman said. Included in that ordinance are requirements specific to construction sites: All edible refuse must be removed by the end of the day.”There’s a perception that we’ve had more bear problems, I’m not sure it’s true,” he said. “But it definitely is a measure to address it and once people understand the problem they will be very cooperative, especially since there is an ordinance.”Despite the threat, Szurgot, who lives in Eagle-Vail now, said he knows of plenty of neighbors who think leaving trash out for bears isn’t that big of deal.”Nobody seems to care,” he said. “It seems like it should be an initiative of the county to pass some rules.”Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado