Bears drop by for dinner in more of West's cities

As humans build deeper into woods, their trash entices bears. New laws try to limit bear encounters.

The morning commute here was interrupted recently by a truly "wild" sight.

A full-grown black bear had lumbered through the backyard of Robert Bellows, - who, mind you, lives right in downtown Boulder - and scrambled up a tree.

"He was like a tourist attraction," says Mr. Bellows, who had come abruptly face to face with the bear before it took refuge among the limbs and leaves. "Word spread like wildfire. People gathered around and were calling on their cell phones."

A close encounter with a black bear is hardly a usual part of the morning traffic report, but such run-ins are becoming more commonplace in Colorado and throughout the West - even in bustling metropolitan areas.

As human populations push deeper into wildlife habitat, bears have become not only less wary of people, but also more enticed by a rich and readily available food source: human's trash.

A growing number of Colorado communities are combating the problem with new laws. No, they're not handing out citations to errant bears for trespassing. Rather, cities and counties are adopting ordinances that require residents to use bear-proof trash containers - and slapping scofflaws with fines ranging from $50 to $500.

The laws appear to be making a difference. The city of Aspen, for instance, which adopted its trash ordinance in 1999, has already seen bear problems reduced by more than half, says city environmental ranger Brian Flynn. The ordinance sets a minimum standard for a wildlife-proof container with a latchable lid and gives residents the alternative of simply keeping trash inside until collection day.

Other Colorado mountain havens, including Steamboat Springs and Telluride, have recently passed similar laws, and more communities around the West are taking notice. Mr. Flynn has received calls from Alaska, Montana, and Canada.

"Everybody is asking: 'Is it working? Is it hard to enforce? Is it worth it?' And the answers are, yes, yes, and yes," he says.

For years, wildlife officials have tried to educate residents on the importance of keeping garbage in wildlife-proof containers, but with only limited success. Setting specific standards, and enforcing them strictly, was key to changing people's habits, says Flynn.

Bears' habits, however, won't change overnight. Having become accustomed to dining on fare from open bins, they may persist in searching. But wildlife experts say that when there's no reward, the bears eventually give up.

An important test of the new laws will come in the next few weeks, as bears get serious about fattening up for winter hibernation. During this crucial period, bears consume as much as 20,000 calories a day (about 34 Big Macs), feeding for as many as 20 hours a day.

Acorns, chokecherries, and serviceberries that bears rely on are in short supply in Colorado, due to late frosts and a dry summer. This means bears are more likely than ever to turn to human food sources, says Tom Beck, a state wildlife researcher and black-bear authority.

Although bears are notorious for such unmannerly behavior as breaking into cars at national parks and clearing pantry shelves in homes, such stunts are not attributable to any innate aggressiveness, says Mr. Beck. Bears are naturally wary of humans, he says, but their fear has diminished as a result of human behavior.

"Unfortunately, over the past decade we've had a lot of people build houses in prime bear habitat," says Beck. At the same time, people often fail to take simple precautions to keep bears away. Besides keeping household trash out of reach, residents should not leave out bird feeders or pet food and keep lower-level windows and doors latched, experts suggest.

But while a screen door or window may

keep out flies, it won't keep a bear from coming in, says Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Last week, a southern-Colorado man was cooking burgers in his kitchen when a bear walked in through his open front door - presumably hoping to share the meal. After a brief tussle, the man managed to scare off the bear.

"If you provide an invitation, a bear will come into your home," says Mr. Malmsbury, adding that the incident could have been averted altogether with a closed door.

Ultimately, the goal is to protect bears, as well as people. Last year, state wildlife officials destroyed 31 bears because of conflicts with humans. Another 106 bears were killed by individuals - typically, landowners protecting livestock or property. In fact, the main threat of death for an adult bear comes at the hands of humans.

"Bears have learned to adapt to us quickly. But humans have been slower to adapt to bears," says Beck. He says he is frequently amazed by bears' apparent tolerance for the exceedingly poor judgment of some humans. "People will feed a bear and then put their child next to it so they can take a picture," he says, attesting that he has seen this with his own eyes.

Yet, he believes that, with a dose of common sense, people and bears can coexist safely. "It can happen. The number of incidences and the number of injuries goes way, way down if you keep food away from bears."

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