Bear breaks into house

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Tony Lettunich and his family are used to frequent bear sightings at their house, but last Tuesday they had an encounter that was a little too close for comfort. Lettunich woke up to a loud clattering in the middle of the night and found an adult bear had rummaged through his kitchen.

Lettunich, who is the city's attorney, told the story to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday night. Frequent bear sightings have caused the council to ask for increased enforcement of its bear ordinance and increased efforts to raise public awareness.

The Lettuniches live on Glacier Ridge, which is just off Clubhouse Drive and next to an open space area near Mount Werner. Lettunich said the bear apparently crawled into their kitchen through a window that was opened just 6 inches.

The bear was able to pry the hinged window open, break the hinges and push the screens to get inside the house, Lettunich said.

The window is about 3 feet off the ground and about 36 inches wide. From scratch marks and claw prints found on the outside of the house, it appeared to be the third window the bear had tried to enter that night.

When Lettunich heard the loud clattering in the middle of the night, he started yelling and screaming. He got up and made his way toward the noise.

When Lettunich reached the kitchen, the bear was by the refrigerator. It already had turned on the water faucet in the kitchen sink and appeared to have gone through cabinets, he said. Nothing was eaten.

His yelling apparently scared the bear off and it crawled out the window. It sat outside the window for a while longer before more yelling and screaming scared it away.

"It was a good ending. There wasn't much damage," Lettunich said.

The family usually sees bears in the fall and spring, Lettunich said. Last spring, he said, a bear was attracted to the house by a bird feeder and came close to a window. The bird feeder was taken down after that visit, he said.

The Lettuniches have worked with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which tried to trap the bear but had difficulty because of the steep topography of the property.

DOW representative Valerie Masiello said it is not uncommon for bears to enter houses in Colorado, but the Lettuniches reported the first case of a bear breaking into a house this year. Right now, bears are searching for food in preparation to hibernate.

"They don't distinguish between house or trash can. It is just food," Masiello said.

The DOW has a two-strike policy. The first time a bear goes inside a house or presents an eminent threat to someone, it is trapped, sedated and then relocated 100 miles away. The bear is also ear tagged and tattooed on the bottom lip for identification.

The second time a bear causes such a problem, it is killed.

It can be hard locate a problem bear, Masiello said, because of the vague descriptions the DOW receives. Last week, Masiello said, the agency received multiple complaints about frequent bear sightings from a few hot spots.

"All we have is color and size. And the size is ... always 'huge.' Bears look huge to everybody," she said. "It is not a very reliable way to determine if it is the same bear."

In the fall, the bears can eat between 20,000 and 30,000 calories a day as they prepare for hibernation. Bears in Colorado typically start hibernating at the end of October and the beginning of November.

Bears have a strong sense of smell that drives them to trash cans and houses, Masiello said. She advises people to follow the city ordinance and to make sure trash is in bear-proof containers. Bear-proof containers should be able to hold about 200 pounds when turned upside down, she said.

"It's the sort of things that get bears in trouble and get people in trouble," she said. "They won't keep coming back to homes if there is no draw."

To discourage bear encounters, the city implemented an ordinance that requires that trash containers that are put out on the street before 5 a.m. on collection day must be in a wildlife-resistant container. Empty containers also must be placed back in residents' houses, garages or enclosures by 6 p.m. the same day.

In the past few weeks, the city has been stepping up enforcement of the ordinance. Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae said more than 240 warnings have been issued.

Council members encouraged the enforcement to continue and directed staff to work with the DOW to put brochures on wildlife in with the next trash billing cycle.

"I don't want to see a tragedy happen," Councilwoman Kathy Connell said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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