Bear aware

Black bear sightings on the rise

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— Jenny Cook was in the kitchen of her home on Meadowbrook Circle a month ago when she heard a "bunk, bunk, bunk" in her garage.

She peeked out the door and saw a bear that had tipped over a trash can.

"I tried to scare him off, but he sat in our front yard for 20 minutes," Cook said. "He just sat there with his feet crossed."

Cook has seen three bears in the past three weeks, and as a result, she moved the locks on her doors so her 2-year-old daughter can't get out and play in the yard unattended.

She doesn't think the bear poses much of a threat, but she's not taking any chances.

"He seems mellow, and he just kind of minds his own business and doesn't damage anything. He's the same size as our German shepherd," Cook said. "If we keep seeing him, we might have to name him."

Cook's experience is anything but unusual during spring in Steamboat Springs.

Susan Werner, area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said her office receives three to four bear calls a day. Bears typically descend into Steamboat in the beginning of May and feed at lower elevations until mid-October or November.

"We've had reports all over the mountain and reports in Old Town -- anywhere that's close to the national forest," Werner said.

More residents are reporting bear sightings as the valley's development continues to encroach upon their habitat.

"I think the main attraction is people's trash. (The bears) are opportunists, and their sense of smell is 100 times more acute than ours. They can smell food in trash cans, open garages or cars with open windows," Werner said. "We have a trash problem, not a bear problem."

There has been only one report of a bear damaging a car this spring, Werner said. She suggests that residents store trash inside garages or bear-proof trash cans. Bird feeders must be brought inside every night, and pets should be fed inside, or their food should be brought inside at night.

"The biggest danger for bears in the Steamboat area, first and foremost, is people," said Randy Hampton, public information officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "But we can change bear behavior by changing people behavior."

When bears find food around people, they get accustomed to people. That can put bears in a compromising position, Werner said.

"They can get hit by cars, they get braver and may break into a house, and some people take care of the situation by killing a bear instead of taking care of their trash," she said.

DOW officers were forced to kill a bear last year. It's a rare occurrence when a bear must be put down. DOW officers manage problem bears under a three-strike policy. The first two reports of a nuisance bear usually results in officers trapping and moving the animal. But after a third report, the bear is killed.

"The real cause of the bear's demise was getting into trash," Werner said.

Black bears are the only species of bear that live in Colorado. Black bears typically weigh between 125 and 450 pounds. There are an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 black bears in Colorado, but they don't pose as much of a threat as people imagine.

"Four million people will be injured by a domestic dog and under 20 people will be injured by a bear in the U.S. annually," Hampton said.

Steamboat resident Karen Van Scoyk saw a bear two years ago while she was running on Skyline Trail.

"It got up on its hind legs and snarled at me," Van Scoyk said. "I screamed and ran, which you're not supposed to do. I did all the wrong things."

Werner said if you see a bear, don't run from it. Doing so may cause the bear to think of you as prey.

"You should make noise so that it recognizes you as a person and not a prey item," Werner said. "Don't approach it, keep your distance and most bears will run away or amble off."

DOW officials are in the midst of a three-year study of urban bear behavior. Their goal is twofold.

"First it is to understand urban black bear behavior, and second is to understand the management techniques we utilize and which are most effective," Hampton said. "Our wildlife officers do not want to kill bears. It wasn't in the interview process. Our wildlife officers got into the business because they love and want to protect wildlife."

-- To reach Allison Plean, call 871-4204

or e-mail aplean@steamboatpilot.com

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