A smelly garbage can is all it could take for an uninvited bear to show up for supper at your house. Spring marks the time of the year that black bears end their winter hiatus and begin trekking downriver to look for food. More and more, the food they find is in household trash.
The Department of Wildlife (DOW) is asking residents in Moffat and Routt counties to keep garbage in a secure place so bears don't become dependent on human food.
"Bears learn what we call 'the garbage route,'" DOW District Manager Libbie Miller said.
The "garbage route" describes places a bear returns to because garbage cans along the way are easy to get into. A bear that has found a "route" depends on garbage as one of its food sources, which isn't healthy for the animal.
"It's getting to the point where we've had a lot of sightings," Steamboat Springs Animal Control Officer Stacy Hayes said.
Old Town, the Conifer subdivision and the Brooklyn area of Steamboat Springs are spots where a number of bears have been seen, she said. Four bears in the area have been identified as nuisance bears. One is a female that has fed on garbage for more than two years. She has reared three cubs in the last two years, all of which have inherited her dumpster-diving skills.
In addition to becoming dependent on garbage, the bears' new food source can change their winter sleeping habits, Miller said.
Black bears don't hibernate, exactly. Instead, they go into a phase of being half-awake for about four or five months. That dormant phase begins, in part, because of the lack of food available in the winter, Miller said.
With garbage available all the time, the bears don't need to go into that phase as early as they once did, she said.
Miller is asking residents to be more aware of their garbage, and if at all possible, bear-proof a place to keep trash cans.
"The best way is to keep the garbage inside," she said. Otherwise, Miller suggested they put cans in a structure with walls and a roof.
People also should try to put leftover food down the garbage disposal instead of throwing it in the garbage where animals can smell it. Bears have an acute sense of smell that enables them to detect food from miles away.
"I think the key is having people put their trash out only on trash day," Waste Management site manager Mike Stinson said. People who leave trash on the curb longer are asking for trouble.
"It makes a huge mess," Stinson said about a bear's eating habits. "If (the bear) hits 15-20 houses, there's no way we can clean it up without community help."
Nuisance bears typically don't pose a danger to the public, Miller said. However, bears can become aggressive if they feel trapped or threatened.
If anyone encounters a bear, the best thing to do is leave it alone. If in a secure place, such as a house, make noise to scare the animal away, Miller said.
The biggest challenge for stopping the free-loading bears is for everyone to take steps to secure their trash cans. If a bear can't get into the trash at one house, the animal will go house to house until it finds a meal. If the bear doesn't find anything then it probably won't return, Miller said. (Doug Crowl is a reporter with the Steamboat Pilot/Today.)