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On Patrol: Colorado Town Smartens Up About Bears

Bear Aware Team helps Breckenridge residents live harmoniously with shaggy neighbors.

  • Bear Aware Team coordinator Gail Marshall (left), volunteer Debbie Sodergren, and Clyde.  Ruthanne Johnson

by Ruthanne Johnson

The paw prints on the back door are  nearly as big as a man’s hand, even though the animal who left them is suspected of being young. Muzzle marks on the door and doorknob tell of his single-minded mission.

Thwarted by the lock but lured onward by tantalizing smells, the bear in question apparently moved around the house, testing each entry point until a small window finally gave. He popped it open, climbed through, and helped himself to the banquet in the refrigerator.

Belly full, the bear squeezed back through the window and promptly relieved his bowels a few feet from the Breckenridge vacation home—typical bear behavior after a feast, says Sean Shepherd, a Colorado Division of Wildlife district wildlife manager called to set a trap. It’s the second time the bear has broken into the house, and he’s now marked under Colorado’s two-strikes rule—whereby any bear caught more than once in a home, car, or trash is relocated from the area or euthanized. Because the juvenile is already creating problems, says Shepherd, the latter fate is likely in store.

Accompanying Shepherd, Gail Marshall walks the secluded landscape—uneven terrain dotted with lodgepole pines and insect-filled snags—in search of bear attractants. She discovers remnants of a cream cheese container the bear likely pilfered from the house, plus beer bottles strewn on the ground by construction workers building an addition. “Bears love beer,” says Marshall with a sigh.

As coordinator of Summit County’s Bear Aware Team, Marshall is at the scene to stay abreast of incidents in the area, home to four ski resorts—and 100 to 150 of Colorado’s estimated 8,000 to 12,000 black bears. The information she learns from wildlife agents such as Shepherd is an invaluable teaching tool in her efforts to look out for bears in a landscape increasingly shared with people. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains in the Upper Blue River Basin, Breckenridge was once prime bear habitat, rich with serviceberries, chokecherries, wild strawberries, and other bear favorites. The town is now home to about 3,500 permanent residents and 35,000 seasonal visitors. Much of the native vegetation has been replaced by dozens of restaurants and shops and thousands of rental condos, apartments, and homes, leaving bears vulnerable to temptation by the ready-made food sources of human society.

A Breckenridge resident since 1993, Marshall tired of hearing about unnecessary bear deaths caused by bad human practices, especially as the tourist population mushroomed. “People were moving here who didn’t know how to live with wildlife,” she says. Birdfeeders were left out, grills weren’t cleaned, and trash was placed curbside days before pickup. Some people placed pet food outside or even fed bears for photo opportunities.

In 1998, Marshall began volunteering for the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Bear Aware program. After learning all she could about black bears, she began setting up booths at events and enlisting volunteers to canvass neighborhoods with pamphlets and homeowner hygiene tips.

Whenever Marshall heard about neighborhoods with problem bears, she and other volunteers investigated for bear attractants. They left hangtags on offenders’ doors and kept a log of homes they visited for wildlife officials. Armed with night-vision binoculars, pots and pans for noise, and popcorn to munch on, she and Bear Aware volunteer Debbie Sodergren took late-night drives in search of problem bruins, hazing them safely away from humans.

Spots on local radio and television stations and her participation in the town’s annual July 4th parade have made “the bear lady” a household name among Summit County residents. Over the years, the Bear Aware Team has played a key role in mitigating Breckenridge’s human-bear conflicts. The town passed a trash ordinance requiring wildlife-resistant containers and restricting when trash can be placed outside for pickup. Community service officers ticket folks who don’t comply. Secured structures for dumpsters are now commonplace throughout Breckenridge, while local trash companies sell affordable bear-resistant trash cans.

Other Colorado towns plagued by conflicts have noticed Breckenridge’s efforts. Frisco and Vail implemented similar trash ordinances, while Aspen recently organized its own Bear Aware Team.

Though Summit County still has bear problems, the number is manageable despite the ongoing challenges presented by the transient community. “We’ve raised awareness to a point where a lot of  human-bear conflicts that could potentially happen are no longer a problem,” says Sodergren.

As for the case of the young bruin who fed unabashedly from the refrigerator, the education of the homeowner is still in progress. While he did place plywood over the window where the bear had broken in, Shepherd’s other suggestions were largely ignored. But the man’s neighbors must have been following through with a community “lockdown” in good faith: Though numerous sightings confirmed the bear’s presence, he was never caught and the trap was hauled away.

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