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Vail to battle the bears

Geraldine Haldner

The same can’t necessarily be said, however, of all Vail residents.

You could call it a battle between the opportunistic ursine and the optimistic human. Whenever they clash – at the garbage can, in the garage, on the porch or by the bird feeder – both lose.

“People and bears both sure have a lot to learn,” says Vail Patrol Officer Matt Lindvall, the Vail Police Department’s go-to guy for bear-human encounters, which have increased so sharply in the past six month Lindvall, a 23-year-old veteran police officer, fears the worst.

“We are just having so many, many more encounters between people and humans now than we’ve ever had,” says Lindvall, who has responded to most of the 134 bear calls the police department has logged in the first six months of 2002. “We have been fortunate that nobody has been injured or killed yet.”

That’s almost three times as many as during the same time period last year.

“There are certainly a number of factors,” Lindvall says of the now daily sightings of bears roaming Vail neighborhoods in search of food.

Wildfires are constricting territory all over the state, forcing more bears into populated areas like the Vail Valley. The persistent drought conditions are forcing bears to look for other food sources to supplement the 20,000 calories in nuts and berries they have to ingest daily during the summer to live through winter hibernation. Real-estate development in Vail, meanwhile, has further moved people deeper into bears territory.

Two strikes

The biggest contributor to the “domesticated bear problem,” however, are humans – ironically the majestic creatures’ only known predator.

Sadly, it no longer takes a hunting permit and good aim to bring down one of these furry giants – as little as a handful of birdseed will do.

“We’ve simply set up a giant ice cream stand in the middle of the forest,” says Bill Andree of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “They can’t resist it.”

Opportunistic by nature, a bear will never miss a chance to eat from a trash container or sip from a hummingbird feeder – even if it means almost certain death.

The state’s “two strikes law” for “dangerous” bears has only a 20 percent success rate. Of the bears caught, hobbled, tagged as a “nuisance” and released far from civilization, 80 percent return to the back porches and garage doors where they got into trouble the first time around.

The second time they are caught with a paw in the cookie jar, so to speak, they are destroyed.

In Vail, many residents never call authorities, knowing they may cut short a bear’s life short. Even the cops themselves sometimes turn a blind eye until a bear becomes a routine threat.

“We won’t involve the state unless we need their assistance,” says Lindvall, who admits to having a “soft spot for bears” – even if he now often has to chase them off with pepper-spray gun in broad daylight.

“I really like bears, even if they don’t like me a lot,” he says.

When called on an overly social bear – like the one found munching from a 5 pound bag of birdseed in an elderly woman’s kitchen in Intermountain two weeks ago – Lindvall does two things.

“Aversion therapy” for the bear and “an educational lecture” for the human.

The bear gets chased off from the food source with sirens, rocks or as a last resort, small plastic projectiles that shatter on impact “and keep the guy sneezing for a week.”

“The idea is to make the guy think twice about coming back to this food source,” Lindvall says.

Then a friendly lecture is given to the owner of the food source – like the elderly woman who was keeping the local bird population well nourished.

“She said she missed having the bird feeder,” Lindvall says. “I told her that the birds are not going to starve. There is a lot of food for birds out there and there is enough food for bears out there too if we don’t tempt them.”

Indeed, the bear returned three times in just 12 hours “to check how thorough we were,” Lindvall says.

The woman opted to stop feeding birds.

Return visits

Checking on past food sources apparently is a newly acquired ursine habits that spooks Lindvall and others familiar with the human-bear problem in Vail.

Considered shy and not territorial unless they have cubs, black bears in Vail do not seem to be all that impressed with humans anymore.

“Now we are getting into a generational thing,” says Lindvall. “There are more of those human food sources available and they have taught their offspring how to look for it.”

This summer, Lindvall says she has encountered bears that won’t even move for cars. And despite being nocturnal animals, bears are now roaming neighborhoods in broad daylight, systematically checking doors.

“They go to homes that are not occupied, smelling around the garage and going around and smelling around the patio door. They no longer associate smell with food, but simply homes. They are shopping around,” Lindvall says.

Close encounters

The other side of the equation – humans – aren’t learning as fast, however – even elected officials, such as Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz.

“I had just put a bag of garbage down next to my car,” he says of an encounter with a bear he lived through to tell three weeks ago. “I went back to get something. When I got back out – and we are talking 15, 20 seconds – a bear was there with bag in hand. … I tried to chase him away but he wouldn’t leave without the bag – I had the joy of cleaning it up.”

Getting physically close to a bear – Kurz estimates he “argued” with the bear less than 5 feet away – is dangerous, Lindvall says, adding that he “respectfully told the mayor that that was “really dumb.”

“Now you are competing with a bear for food,” Lindvall says, adding that the more bear sightings there are the more people are letting their guards down, too.

“They get used to the bears the way the bears get used to them,” he says.

Chasing bears off – Vail councilwoman Diana Donovan is known for taking a water hose to ursines strolling in her yard – is fine, Lindvall says. Trying to take food away from a bear isn’t.

Bear-proofing

Following the death of one bear on Interstate 70 last month, many more apparently are at risk of becoming “problem bears,” Lindvall says.

Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger has approached the Vail Town Council and asked “to put some teeth” into the town’s code to strongly encourage people to act smart in bear country.

Last week, Town Council members opted against mandating bear-proof or bear-resistant trash containers and enclosures following the advise of Donovan, who owns and operates Vail Honeywagon, one of two garbage hauling companies in the valley.

Donovan told her colleagues on the council that bear-proof containers are not only heavy, they are dangerous, with lids that can “cut fingers off.” Bear-resistant containers don’t really address the problem, either, she said, because bears eventually still get to the garbage inside “after pushing them up and down the street.”

Instead, the council is scheduled to review proposed legislation to prohibit garbage from being left at the curb or outside a home on any day other than trash pick-up day.

A “dawn-to-dusk” ordinance, Vail Town Attorney Matt Mire says, would outlaw leaving garbage unsecured.

“Garbage will not be allowed overnight at the curb other than same day it’s picked up,” he says. “Otherwise, it will have to kept secured and enclosed at all times.”

Offenders risk fines and incarceration, from a minimum of $25 and a day in jail to up to $999 and 180 days in jail.

Laws with teeth

Additionally, Mire is also working to “tighten holes in the code” regarding other human activities that attract wildlife. For example, if adopted, dog food left outside or barbeque grills left unclean could result in a ticket or a date in Vail Municipal Court for anyone who repeatedly is found to be the source of a bear visit.

“Other towns and counties have gone to bear-proof ordinances, but the council felt the first step should be trying to educate the citizens,” Mire says. “It is no understatement that garbage kills. The whole idea of feeding wildlife will be considered a nuisance,” he says adding that the nuisance language may be tagged on to the dusk-to-dawn ordinance or be spelled out in a separate ordinance that will close loopholes in several sections of the Vail Town Code.

Lindvall, until now, has said he has had little to threaten a “small minority of repeat offenders” – humans not bears. Now he says he expects new “toothy” laws may help reduce the number of bear-human encounters.

“To me that is a better solution than to relocate a bear,” he says. “I expect (new laws ) to substantially cut the number of conflicts, but I don’t think it will be an overnight cure. We have to unteach them and we have to teach people to eliminate that food source until the bears learn this isn’t such a good place to eat.”

Lindvall says he agrees with the council’s decision to forgo mandatory bear-proof or bear-resistant trash containers for now.

“Bears can figure out almost anything, and doing that would be like telling everyone they have to wear eyeglasses when they drive,” he says. “Some people don’t need eyeglasses to drive.”

Armed with stronger nuisance language in the code, he says, “we can reasonably deal with a minority of people who are causing the problem.”

That minority, he says, are people “who do things they would never do when they camp. It’s amazing what people do at home that they would never do out in the wild – they have to learn that they live in the wild.”

In the end, he says, offenders have to remember that their actions take away from the very attributes that make this area special.

“I enjoy seeing a bear in the the wild,” Lindvall says. “To me it is always sad when I see a bear eating garbage. It’s the wrong thing for this environment.”

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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