No longer bearable

City considers garbage containers designed to stave of wildlife raids

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— When bears climb into the urban canyon that is Steamboat Springs this summer looking for food, they may be disappointed.

Trash cans bears have rooted through in the past will have to be modified to keep animals out if the city passes a new trash ordinance in two weeks.

The first reading of the ordinance passed unanimously at City Council on Tuesday.

Spurred by the increasing number of bears that have placed their furry feet in areas where humans now live, the city is attempting to take away access to the biggest attraction in the area.

"The entire city of Steamboat Springs is bear habitat," said Animal Control Officer Stacy Hayes, who works for the city. "People just have to understand that."

The proposed ordinance makes residents who take their trash out at night add special closure systems to their trash cans so that animals will be unable to get to the garbage inside. Restaurants and businesses will have to outfit dumpsters with bear-proof locks as well. Waste Management, the company that collects the city's garbage, will attach the clasps to the receptacles once the ordinance is passed.

People who take their trash cans out after 5 a.m. in the morning and pick them up by 6 p.m. at night will not have to modify their trash cans.

Susan Werner, the area wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife, said bears could get into just about any trash container regardless of size, shape and placement.

The only way to turn them away is to add latches that require opposable thumbs to open them, she said. The lids must stay on even if the trash can is overturned.

"Pretty much, if you can get the lid off, the bear can get the lid off," Werner said.

Bears will pop the tops off cans and turn Dumpsters over to get to the trash inside, Werner said. Once the bear is accustomed to human food and knows where to get it, it remembers where dinner is served, even if the DOW attempts to relocate the bear, Werner said. At that point the bear can become dependent on the human community for sustenance and lose the ability to forage for itself. The food they find in garbage is not particularly good for them.

"When they're Dumpster-diving, they're not eating their normal diet," Hayes said.

City staff drafted the ordinance after seeing its success in cities like Aspen and Basalt, which passed a similar ordinance this May. The city also had considerable help from the DOW.

City officials and community residents have seen all too well the problems caused when a bear starts relying on human trash for food.

One undernourished bear seen rifling through trash at a restaurant last summer was killed a few days later at Howelsen Hill Park by an official from the DOW who said the bear would not survive the summer.

The bear had a tumor blocking its nasal passage and could not smell food. Seven or eight bears were spotted in Steamboat Springs last summer, according to Werner.

And while she has never seen a bear strolling down Lincoln Avenue, more than a few have been spotted within a stone's throw of the city's main thoroughfare.

"We could have the same issues with bears and wildlife this summer as we did last summer," said City Council President Pro Tem Kathy Connell.

Brian Flynn, the environmental ranger for the city of Aspen, said a similar ordinance Aspen passed in 1999 has been effective. He said he was encouraged by the Steamboat City Council's actions.

"I'm glad to hear they're going for it," Flynn said. "It's really a statewide problem."

The increase in bear-human contact has been spurred by the recent dry summers that have compelled bears to travel into the valley, Hayes said.

On Tuesday, the same day the City Council passed the ordinance on first reading, the DOW killed the first "problem" bear of the spring at a campground in Pueblo after it was found in a supermarket parking lot.

The bear-proof trash cans are also meant to keep dogs and wildlife out of the trash.

Ernie DeCasper of Waste Management said the company has attached similar devices to trash cans in cities like Basalt and Telluride.

The cost to the company for materials and labor comes to about $25 for a resident's trash receptacle and between $100 and $125 for a business' dumpster, DeCasper said.

On the residential garbage carts, the closure can be made out of a relatively simple clasp but the dumpsters require reinforced lids and locking bars placed over the covers, DeCasper said. DeCasper said the company will have to pass the cost onto consumers, probably in the form of a one-time payment. Many residents rent carts from the company, though others take out their trash in other ways and pay Waste Management to pick it up. Those residents would have to make their own arrangements to have their garbage receptacles upgraded.

About 3,000 households use the Waste Management service in Steamboat and the company services about 500 dumpsters, he said.

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