As serviceberries and chokecherries around Steamboat Springs ripen, encounters with black bears are becoming a more common occurrence.

John F. Russell/File Photo

As serviceberries and chokecherries around Steamboat Springs ripen, encounters with black bears are becoming a more common occurrence.

Black bears edge closer to Steamboat for berries

More encounters reported as animals look to town and people for food

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What to do

If you surprise a bear

- Stand still, stay calm and let the bear identify you and leave. Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route.

- Never run or climb a tree.

- If you see cubs, their mother is usually close. Leave the area immediately.

If the bear doesn't leave

- A bear standing up is just trying to identify what you are by getting a better look and smell.

- Wave your arms slowly overhead and talk calmly. If the bear huffs, pops it jaws or stomps a paw, it wants you to give it space.

- Step off the trail to the downhill side, keep looking at the bear and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight.

If the bear approaches

- A bear knowingly approaching a person could be a food-conditioned bear looking for a handout or, very rarely, an aggressive bear. Stand your ground. Yell or throw small rocks in the direction of the bear.

- Get out your bear spray and use it when the bear is about 40 feet away.

- If you're attacked, don't play dead. Fight back with anything available. People have successfully defended themselves with pen knives, trekking poles and even bare hands.

Source: Colorado Division of Wildlife

Black bear encounters

Black bears are very intelligent, with individual responses to people and situations. Wild black bears seldom attack unless they feel threatened, cornered or provoked.

About black bears

Today, bears are sharing space with a growing human population. Curious, intelligent and very resourceful, black bears will explore all possible food sources. If they find food near homes, campgrounds, vehicles or communities, they'll come back for more. Bears will work hard to get the calories they need, and they easily can damage property, vehicles and homes. Bears that become aggressive in their pursuit of an easy meal often must be destroyed.

Source: Colorado Division of Wildlife Web site

— Ripe serviceberries and chokecherries around Steamboat Springs are drawing black bears in from the wilderness, keeping Division of Wildlife officers and homeowners busy this summer deterring, and sometimes killing, nuisance bears.

Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said his office has moved two yearlings away from town and two cubs to a rehabilitation center in Rifle. Also this summer, authorized trappers have killed at least three nuisance bears in northern Routt County, and landowners have killed about four bears as they protected livestock in the northern part of the county. One homeowner killed a bear outside of Hayden.

One bear was killed when a car hit it, and one bear was shot illegally in downtown Steamboat in July.

"Essentially, it's not as bad as two years ago, but much worse than last year," Haskins said about bear issues.

Haskins said the DOW moved two yearlings that had been causing problems with their mother in Steamboat Springs. He was reluctant to say where the bears were relocated because it could cause complaints from residents in those areas. One bear, he said, was moved about 60 miles away at the end of May, but within two weeks, it was causing problems near Hayden.

Homeowner Chuck Kistler, who lives on U.S. Highway 40 west of Hayden, said he never had seen a bear in the area in the 30 years he and his family have lived at the home. But during the first week in June, a bear began searching near and inside his house for food.

At first, the bear rummaged through trash, then walked into the garage. Five times during that first day, the bear visited the house. That night, he heard a noise outside his front door and saw the yearling bear standing on its back legs looking through the screen door.

The bear was close enough that Kistler could read the numbers on its ear tag before scaring it away.

That evening, he drove to Steamboat for business, and when he returned he discovered that the bear had broken into the house by sliding open a window that was cracked open. The bear wandered through the house and pillaged the pantry.

Kistler said the 130-pound bear broke a mirror and spread food throughout the kitchen but otherwise caused minor damage.

"The bear was well-trained," he said. "He turned (latch-style) door handles and things. : You can tell he got in rooms that the doors were closed by turning the handles."

He told DOW officers about the break-in and was told that the officers would bring out a trap and would kill the animal per the two-strikes rule. The DOW will move an animal the first time it causes problems, but if it again looks to humans for food, it will be killed. Haskins said a bear also will almost always be killed if it breaks into a house.

"They told me it was a second strike, so it was going to be euthanized anyway when they caught it, and if it came around again, I'd be doing them a favor if I shot it," he said.

At 5:30 the next morning, the bear was back and trying to get in through a kitchen window.

Kistler said he scared the bear off, then chased it outside where he shot and killed it with a shotgun.

He notified DOW officers, who hauled the dead animal away.

Landowners protecting sheep in northern Routt County, near Hahn's Peak, have reported killing four bears that were harassing or killing livestock.

Haskins said the number of complaints about bears killing livestock this year was higher than in past years, and recently a bear killed two reindeer calves at a farm just outside of Steamboat.

Three other nuisance bears were killed by authorized trappers in northern Routt County, with two of the kills taking place last weekend.

The two cubs seen going through garbage behind the Old West Steakhouse were trapped and moved to a rehabilitation center.

Haskins said the mother of those two probably still is in the area.

Berry crop

Haskins said there are between three and six family groups of bears in the Steamboat area, totaling between six and 10 bears, but that number increases dramatically as bears prepare for winter.

Haskins said the bears are coming closer to town to find berries as the low-lying areas and city warmth has spurred more growth near town than in the wilderness.

Karen Vail, naturalist with Yampatika, said that during her nature hikes she has noticed many more berries close to town.

"I found the berries in town are doing absolutely phenomenal," she said, while the berries farther away are "absolutely bleak. There's nothing out there."

Bears in the Yampa Valley tend to base their diets on the abundant serviceberries and chokecherries; they also eat a variety of other wild berries and acorns.

Vail said a frost that swept through the area earlier this year may have killed many of the wild berries, while the warmth of the city and roads protected crops closer to civilization.

"Right now (the bears) are going big time after small insects, grubs, moths. You'll see a lot of logs down - old logs with inside sections of them turned over where they're trying to get at the grubs," she said.

Yampatika Executive Director Sonja Macys said the berries likely will remain on the trees well into the start of cold weather, and bears could continue to come close to town to find them.

- To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail zfridell@steamboatpilot.com

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