STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Before taking his current job as the city manager of Steamboat, Gary Suiter worked in Minturn, the small municipality halfway between Vail and Beaver Creek resorts.
Ten years ago, Minturn did not have any requirements about storing or securing the trash of residents and businesses, according to Suiter. As the community grew and tourists flocked in ever-bigger numbers, so too did black bears, hungry and in search of easy food.
“We became the feeding round for the bears,” he said.
After almost four years in Steamboat, Suiter is seeing a similar problem unfold here.
In the span of just seven months this year, from March through Sept. 26, the number of bear-related incidents within city limits more than tripled the number recorded for all of 2018, according to data from the Steamboat Springs Police Department.
“Predominantly, the calls are for bears getting into trash,” according to Police Chief Cory Christensen, whose agency responds the vast majority of such incidents in the area.
In the last 10 years, communities across Colorado have reported an increase of bear sightings and conflicts, according to state wildlife officials. A growing human and bear population, as well as a lack of adequate trash storage, have caused the animals to become bolder, more troublesome and sometimes dangerous.
Pitkin County, which includes the city of Aspen, recorded three bear attacks over the summer, according to a news release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
More trash violations, more bear conflicts
Colorado is home to about 22,000 black bears, according to district wildlife manager Kyle Bond, though exact numbers are hard to determine. That is an increase of about 3,000 compared to five years ago.
Black bears, the only bear species in Colorado, tend to be docile and afraid of humans, but they can turn aggressive if they feel threatened or if they get too habituated around people and their trash.
In August, a restaurant manager in Aspen was bitten on the leg after he tried to scare a bear out of a dumpster.
When animals pose a risk to human safety, wildlife officers have no choice but to kill them, according to Bond, who is based in Steamboat. They also euthanize bears that repeatedly get into garbage cans, cars or even people’s homes.
Across the state, 88 bears have been killed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers this year, according to the agency’s data. Three of those were from Routt County.
Many people have criticized wildlife officers for taking lethal action against the animals. Bond understands their anger, but emphasized that he and other officers entered the field to help, not hurt wildlife. Despite the rise in bear conflicts, the number of killings has decreased this year, down from 116 in 2018.
“The last thing we want to do is kill a bear,” Bond said.
The irony, according to Bond, is that the public is blaming him and his colleagues for a problem that the public is causing.
“It gets frustrating when people aren’t helping us to prevent these incidents in the first place,” he said.
To that end, Steamboat ordinances require people to have trash containers and recycle bins that are certified bear-resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
If they do not, residents must store their waste in a building, house, garage or dumpster enclosure. They may only take waste outside between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on trash pick-up days.
The problem is compliance.
So far this year, the Police Department issued 33 citations to residents and businesses for failing to adequately secure their garbage. That is more than quadruple the number of citations issued last year.
Police Chief Christensen pointed to several reasons why people fail to follow the ordinances. Many violators are visitors who do not understand the issue. But some are locals who think the rules are ridiculous or simply forget.
“We encounter numerous people who continue to actually feed the bears,” Christensen said.
To reach better solutions and compliance, Steamboat officials are looking to other mountain communities to see how they manage their bear populations.
The bear whisperer
Steve Searles is a wildlife specialist for Mammoth Lakes, a tourist-popular town of about 8,000 tucked in the eastern Sierras, about a day’s hike from Yosemite.
A soft-spoken man with a thick, unkempt beard, Searles has become known as the “bear whisperer” for his uncanny ability to interact and even communicate with the animals, some of which has been shown on national television.
Back in the ’90s, Searles said that bears roamed Mammoth with as much brazenness as Steamboat’s current population, tearing into dumpsters and gradually losing their capacity to live in the wild. The trash, torn and splayed onto streets, attracted other unwanted wildlife like coyotes and raccoons.
Searles developed a simple solution. He and other officials ensured that every dumpster within city limits was bear-proof. These containers are even harder for animals to break into than bear-resistant ones. Officials also educated residents and visitors about the importance of abiding by the town’s garbage ordinances, which outlawed unsecured trash.
Failing to do so can result in a fine ranging from $250-750, according to Searles. Over the years, complying with trash ordinances has become so ingrained in residents’ minds that violations are few and far between.
“Out of 350 or 400 locked dumpsters, probably two or three people are drunk or stoned and leave them open at night,” Searles said.
Twenty years later, Mammoth’s wildlife problem has almost completely disappeared. Without trash to eat, animals do not bother to mess with dumpsters.
“Bears co-exist with us in our community without being fed,” Searles said.
He also implemented a non-lethal bear management policy. Killing the animals, he found, would only create a temporary void that another bear would inevitably fill.
“If shooting them worked, I would have done it from the beginning,” he said.
In the last 50 years, Searles knows of only two bears that have been euthanized in the area. Mammoth has since become a poster child for effective wildlife and humane management.
“People come from all over the world almost daily just to see how we live with our bears,” Searles said.
Finding local solutions
After such a busy bear season, the Steamboat City Council has scheduled a November work session to discuss ways to reduce conflicts and boost compliance with the existing trash ordinances.
Bond hopes that the city eventually passes a similar ordinance to that in Mammoth, requiring the use of bear-proof dumpsters that are approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
City Manager Gary Suiter and his staff have been collecting data from other towns to draw from their progress. While he also would like to see only bear-proof containers in city limits, they can cost upwards of $1,000 each.
“It’s going to be a balancing act of how do we mitigate and reduce human bear conflicts in our city while not creating a cost burden on the residents,” Suiter said.
Next summer, Christensen plans to more strictly enforce the city’s trash ordinances, particularly for repeat offenders. Fines for such violations range from $250-$750.
As Suiter emphasized, the time is ticking to prevent more serious bear problems.
“I would rather be proactive than reactive,” he said. “If we aren’t, eventually someone will get hurt.”