Steamboat Springs Wildlife officials are telling residents that it's the humans who need to adapt to the local bear population whose members are learning to love the taste of garbage.
"I would term it more of a people problem than a bear problem," Colorado Division of Wildlife area manager Susan Werner said.
The problem became painfully clear for a family pet in the Val D'isere Circle neighborhood near the ski mountain. A bear that frequents the neighborhood attacked and injured the dog, owned by the Mouffe family.
"I've seen bears a lot through the years," Frank Mouffe said. But he'd never seen a bear act like the one that woke him up howling in his driveway at 3 o'clock the morning his dog was hurt.
Instead of running off, like Mouffe has seen bears do in the past, this one stayed in the driveway. After 10 minutes, the animal retreated to the nearby woods, but Mouffe could still hear it howling for a longtime afterwards.
"I woke up (later) that morning and noticed our dog, Cody, had a pretty good size cut around his neck," he said.
Mouffe found out later the bear has cubs and he speculated the animal was protecting her young.
Most of the time, a bear will attack a domestic animal because it's being pestered, Werner said. Usually it takes just one swipe of the bear's lethal claws and the dog runs off.
What brings bears into neighborhoods is that the wild animals begin to associate humans with food, Werner said.
After Mouffe's encounter with the bear last month, he noticed that his trash cans had been knocked over, even though they were empty.
"We keep the trash cans in the garage when there's trash in them," he said.
Bears are smart, Werner said. They learn where they can find food and that's usually in trash cans. In some cases, bears can smell garbage from miles away.
Since April, the DOW has received numerous calls about bear encounters and has identified neighborhoods near Fish Creek Falls and Mount Werner as places where bears are known to search for a meal. Those neighborhoods back up against the Routt National Forest, which is prime bear habitat.
"We see them occasionally along the golf course near Fish Creek drainage," said Chuck Porter, general manager of the Sheraton Steamboat Resort. "Down in that area there are Dumpsters that they just crawl in."
Resort employees have contacted the DOW about the bears but Porter said wildlife officials don't seem particularly concerned.
Werner said there isn't much she can do because it's the open trash cans that lure the bears to the urban areas. Furthermore, she said, you can't blame a bear for causing problems in neighborhoods near wildlands.
Steamboat Springs is surrounded by bear habitat. With the town pushing closer and closer to forest lands, it's inevitable that bear habitat will collide with people habitat.
"It's their country, we just invaded it," animal control officer Kim Westerberg said.
Westerberg has responded to numerous bear calls this year.
"We usually tell people to get their dog and stay inside," she said. "Usually the bear just wanders away."
To avoid problems, residents throughout Steamboat Springs need to assume that bears will be in their neighborhoods and take precautions to avoid giving the bear food like covering garbage and keeping it in an enclosed area, Werner said.
At the Sheraton, the trash containers are not bear-proof, but Porter said a new area for leftover food is being built as part of a new maintenance shed that will be bear proof.
"They'll have a lot of obstacles to crawl over to get into those," he said.
There have been suggestions by some residents that the handful of bears known to roam the Mount Werner area be relocated. But unless a bear is repeatedly climbing into homes, relocation is out of the question, Werner said.
"We live in bear habitat," she said. "If the bears can't live in the national forest then where can they live?"
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