Residents strain to coexist with increasingly hungry black bears
September 9, 2007
SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” Ted Grenda is downright inhospitable toward some of his neighbors, placing plywood strips with nails along his doors and windows.
But wildlife officials say that makes him a good neighbor to the black bears that share the mountains ” especially this year, when a late freeze and drought across the West have drastically reduced their natural fare of berries and acorns.
The bears’ search for food, intensifying as they bulk up for hibernation, has driven the animals into towns to forage in garbage bins, bird feeders and even inside homes like Grenda’s, where they’ve hauled off peaches and a 10-pound bag of sugar.
Dozens of the intruders have been hit by cars ” or killed by wildlife officers.
That threat of a death penalty for offending bears is why Grenda put up his home defenses, and keeps his garbage cans inside.
“What we have to understand is that we live in a wild area,” said Grenda, a former mayor of this ski town.
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Colorado wildlife officers have killed at least 30 black bears this summer for having run-ins with people. Landowners defending livestock and federal agents have killed 42 more, and 29 bears were killed by vehicles. Bear mortality could rival 2002’s record total of 404. There have been at least 877 reports of human-bear encounters this year, compared with 502 for all of last year.
Officers in the resort city of Aspen field 20 to 40 bear complaints daily. Black bears are often seen digging in trash bins outside the town’s upscale restaurants and scavenging around multimillion-dollar homes.
The problem has spread across the West.
Nevada’s Department of Wildlife has received nearly 1,000 bear complaints this year, compared with 350 last year. Five bears have been killed. In the Lake Tahoe area, a record 20 bears have been hit by cars.
Bear calls are up in Utah after a fatal attack on an 11-year-old boy in a campground about 30 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Wildlife experts don’t know why the bear dragged the boy away in his sleeping bag.
A few cubs have been found wandering on their own, and Cary Carron, a state district wildlife manager in southwest Colorado, suspects mothers might be abandoning their young because they can’t feed them.
Some people have urged that the bears be fed. Others want a longer hunting season, which can run from September to November, depending on the license.
Wildlife officials reject feeding bears in time of drought, saying that would artificially support a population that nature cannot.
As much as trying to control the bears, animal control officers have taken to educating people. They recommend simple steps such as keeping garbage cans and pet food inside, latching trash bin lids and not feeding bears to get pictures.
“People don’t want to take steps to bearproof anything until that bear is knocking on the front door,” said Carl Lackey, a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist.
Some Colorado communities require bear-resistant garbage cans and fine violators. The fine for a first offense in Pitkin County, which includes Aspen and Snowmass Village, is $350, which can be waived if people agree to buy the special garbage bins. The maximum penalty is $1,000.
Snowmass Village animal control Officers Laurie Smith and Tina White work with homeowners to string electric fences or put out boards with nails. Bears are rarely injured by the nails because they’re careful where they step.
Vail police shoot paintball-like pellets packed with pepper to chase away bears.
“They associate garbage with a snout full of pepper,” said police Sgt. Ryan Millbern. “Their sense of smell is 100 times more sensitive than a human’s and about seven times more sensitive than a bloodhound’s.”
Yellowstone National Park, once known for traffic jams caused by visitors stopping for panhandling bears, closed open dumps that attracted bruins and cracked down on people leaving food out in campgrounds.
The number of visitors injured by bears in Yellowstone is down from an average of 45 yearly in the ’60s to about one a year.
“We had to essentially train a new generation of visitors and a new generation of bears,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said.