Bear encounters low, may climb

— There have been only a few incidents involving bears so far this spring, but officials are urging residents to be careful with trash and take other steps to reduce the likelihood of contact with a bear.

So far this season, there have been about two dozen reported bear sightings in the Steamboat area, said Libbie Miller, district wildlife manager.

Last week, a bear killed two goats in Elk River Estates, the first known animal kill this season, Miller said. That's a change from last year, in which bears had killed about six sheep by the end of May.

Although bear activity has been low so far, Miller said she expects it will accelerate, especially because the drought could reduce the berries, nuts and vegetation on which bears rely.

"I suspect that we may once again have sightings in the middle of town," she said, referring to the bear and cubs that paraded along Lincoln Avenue last summer.

Last year, the hot spots for bear sightings included the Burgess Creek development, the Mount Werner ski mountain and the Strawberry Park area.

Miller said that probably about three or four different black bears romp around the Steamboat Springs area.

Black bears are the only species present in Colorado. They can weigh between 150 and 450 pounds and despite their name can be brown, blonde, cinnamon or black in color.

District Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins has investigated several black bear sightings this year. He also investigated the goat kill last week.

"Both of these goats appeared to me to be pretty much older animals," Haskins said. "I think they were pretty easy picking, and they were just handy. If there is a food source around, that's what the bears are going to go for."

Bears have a good sense of smell, and their noses lead them to barbecues, hummingbird feeders, pet food and trash cans, Haskins said.

A few years ago in Aspen, Haskins worked on a case in which a bear ripped out the window of a Suburban so it could get to some Twinkies inside.

"Bears are pretty much driven by the instinct to eat," Haskins said. "We're trying to educate the community about the fact that eating drives (the bears') biology The whole trick is to take the enticement away."

A city ordinance approved last June is designed to remove some of that enticement.

The new ordinance requires residents and businesses to keep trash in wildlife-resistant containers, Dumpsters or enclosed areas such as garages. The only time trash can be outside and not in one of these secure containers is from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. on collection day.

"Our goal by providing this ordinance was to make sure that wildlife could remain wildlife," City Clerk Julie Jordan said. "Since we can't educate the bears, we need to educate the people and say, 'Hey, you're not doing them any good by feeding them.'"

Wildlife-resistant containers, which can be purchased through Waste Management, have a latch that secures the lid and prevents bears from getting to the trash.

Residents who don't comply with the ordinance face a fine up to $999 and a maximum jail sentence of six months. There has not yet been a court case involving the ordinance. But officials said the ordinance should work to keep bears out of the area.

"Steamboat Springs has done a great job at being proactive in people-bear encounters," said Todd Malmsbury, chief of information for the Colorado Department of Wildlife. "Steamboat is going to have fewer and fewer problems with that based on the experiences of other communities that have adopted similar ordinances"

These other communities include Basalt, Snowmass, Aspen and Pitkin County. Other counties, such as Boulder, are considering adopting a new trash ordinance.

Malmsbury said there are about 10,000 to 12,000 black bears in Colorado. In a state where the human population is growing quickly, encounters between bears and people are only likely to become more common, he said.

But what is unlikely is bears attacking people. Since 1966, there have been only 23 known incidents of bears injuring people, Miller said. And only one of those incidents took place in Routt County, which has never been confirmed.

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