The Colorado Division of Wildlife is getting some help from a sharp 13-year-old middle school student to try to pinpoint the most common areas where nuisance bears are reported in the city.
Matt Holthausen is using a Geographical Informational System computer program to map and document information from 120 bear-sighting reports in the past year. The project is part of Holthausen's independent study for an eighth-grade computer class.
He's working with Division of Wildlife area manager Libbie Miller.
Miller pursued the project because she wanted to be able to give the public an idea of how widespread the problem with bears venturing into human-populated areas has become.
"People are always surprised to hear that bears live in their community," Miller said.
Well, bears live in the mountains and so do we, Miller added.
When finished, the GIS computer program will have a map showing every place a bear has been sighted, specific information about the sighting and what drainage area the animal followed to get into town.
"It can be used as a community tool," Miller said.
With the sighting reports alone, the DOW was able to loosely identify each bear, determine if it was lured by a free dinner in a trash can and if it is a repeat offender.
The GIS program will allow the agency to easily identify the neighborhood where the most bear sightings happen, then try to figure out why. That's important for the DOW to know and for Steamboat residents to understand, Miller said.
"With this data, we can go to different neighborhood associations and tell them that they have the third most sightings in Steamboat," she said.
From there, the reason the bears are being lured in can be more easily identified.
"I've said it several times that this is a community issue. In reality, we live in bear country," Miller said.
Last year, the city of Aspen identified nuisance bears as a community problem and passed an ordinance to force residents to store trash in an enclosed structure or wildlife-proof container.
"It was just a problem that was getting out of control," said Jake Hegeman, environmental ranger for the city of Aspen.
Aspen residents face a $50 fine for first offenses and a $250 fine and a court appearance for second and third offenses if their trash cans aren't animal proof.
Hegeman said the favorite local trash can is a product called Bear-ier. It's embedded in concrete and is completely bear-proof. The can retails for about $700.
Miller said the DOW wants to focus on education for bear control before taking any drastic measures.
The GIS program could be an important element in that. She credits Holthausen for making it happen.
"I really wasn't into bears that much, to tell you the truth," Holthausen admitted.
He is into computers though. At 5 years old, Holthausen got his first computer. A couple of years later, he had five more that he was taking apart and putting back together.
This summer, Holthausen took a weeklong summer camp at Colorado Mountain College to learn the GIS program.
His adviser, Susan Wenzlau, identified him as the perfect candidate for the bear-mapping project.
In addition to the GIS work, Holthausen developed a Web site where people can report bear sightings instead of calling the DOW.
"It's great to have a multitalented student. He works like an adult," Wenzlau said.
For Miller, working with the smart student gives her an opportunity to learn something about computers.
"It's kind of cool with this project that we're working with an eighth-grader who has skills that I don't even have," Miller said.
Holthausen's work is part of the Yampa Valley community mapping program, which is supported by the Orton Institute and the Yampa Valley Legacy Education Initiative.
Bear sightings in town or in popular hiking areas can be reported by calling the DOW at 870-2197 or logging onto
Miller said the more reports the more accurate the information will be.