In 2011, Brenda Lee received a major wake-up call.
On a morning walk through the University Hill, the Boulder resident noticed piles of trash lining several consecutive alleyways. She flagged down a garbage truck and asked the drivers what had happened.
“They jumped out and said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re bears. We see them all the time, and we can tell you which alleys they’re on on which day of the week because [the bears] know the trash schedule.’ It was very matter-of-fact to them,” Lee says.
Having heard about bears being killed in town, Lee was indignant. She would later go on to found the Boulder Bear Coalition, an organization aimed at reducing human-bear conflict.
“It was so obvious,” she says. “Secure the trash. Bears don’t want to come into town, and you don’t have officers coming into town and killing the bears.”
The prevalence of black bears in Boulder isn’t just a safety issue for humans. It’s much more dangerous for the bears. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) spokesperson Jennifer Churchill, an estimated 100 bears are relocated statewide each year — and 100 bears are killed.
“And that’s separate from bears that are hunted, killed by landowners or hit by cars,” Churchill says. “We have to make sure that people are safe in our state, and unfortunately, wildlife will pay the price for that.”
According to CPW’s statewide policy, informally known as “the two-strike rule,” bears that are determined to be a nuisance are tagged and removed, if possible. If a bear wearing a tag returns, it will typically be killed.
With this rule in place, failing to secure our trash becomes a virtual death sentence for bears.
“They’re all about food in the fall — they need to eat 20,000 calories a day. That would take all day to eat from a berry tree,” Lee says. “If instead they can cruise an alley, eat for an hour and sleep for the rest of the day, that’s what a bear’s going to do.”
There appears to be a direct link between our behavior, the presence of bears and bears being killed. The good news? That means we can do something about it.
Lee says that the most important thing Boulder residents can do to help bears is to secure their trash — either storing trash in a secure enclosure or using bear-resistant trash cans.
In 2014, Boulder enacted Ordinance No. 7962, requiring all homes and business west of Broadway and south of Sumac Avenue to use bear-resistant trash cans. Failure to comply comes with a stiff fine — $250 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for repeat offenses.
But bears do cross Broadway. Bears that travel east of Broadway often find themselves in even more danger — they’re likely to encounter traffic, and without an easy escape route they’re much harder to scare off. With that in mind, people who live east of Broadway are just as responsible for their trash, even if not legally mandated to do so.
Bear-proof trash cans are available through Western Disposal Services (WDS) and at several hardware stores in the Boulder area. WDS repairs damaged trash cans for free.
According to the National Park Service, bears have one of the best senses of smell in the animal kingdom. Conservative estimates say that bears can smell food up to 2 miles away, while some say they can pick up smells from up to 20 miles away. In any case, reducing attractants in city is essential for keeping bears out; even if food is inaccessible, from 5 miles away bears won’t know the difference.
Bird feeders are a major bear attractant. Whether they contain seeds or sugar water, bird feeders mean easy calories.
When asked what residents should do about their bird feeders, Churchill says, “Take them down. … Birds have access to all kinds of natural food during the spring and summer months, when bears are active. You can use flowers or bird baths to attract birds to your home if you enjoy seeing them. But putting out bird feeders or hummingbird feeders with sugar water is certainly a problem and will attract bears.”
Fruit trees are another ideal food source for bears. Harvesting ripe and fallen fruit in one’s yard is a good way to prevent bear visits.
“While eating apples is healthier than eating trash, it still brings them into town, and into potential issues with people and wildlife officials,” Lee says.
Community Fruit Rescue organizes volunteer fruit harvests in the Boulder area — those with fruit trees can host harvests at their homes. Much of the fruit is then donated to homeless shelters in the Boulder area, while the inedible fruit feeds bears at wild animal sanctuaries.
Boulder will always be attractive to bears. Removing access to food is a great way to make sure that they don’t take up residence here, but Boulder’s creeks and irrigation ditches, its proximity to the mountains and its food smells will always make it a likely destination for some bears.
Churchill says it’s our job to make sure they don’t get comfortable. While bears might inspire sympathy, Churchill says that tolerance sends the wrong message.
“We need to enjoy that moment, take a few pictures, but then get out pots and pans and bang them, get out an air horn and scare the animals off,” she says. “If we encourage them to take up residence in our back yard, then the next time we want to go out and have a barbecue — guess what? That is now that bear’s habitat, not your back yard.”
While black bears are not aggressive, they can be territorial. After a bear spends a few days in someone’s yard, moving it can be dangerous. The key is to act quickly.
“If people choose to tolerate them up to a certain point, and then say, ‘Oh, it’s too much now. You need to move the bear.’ We’re really putting those bears in harm’s way,’ Churchill says. “Our hands are forced as far as what we can do, trying to get a bear to leave what it now thinks is its territory.”
Whether or not one should contact CPW varies. Bears that aren’t bothering anyone and look like they can find their own way out typically don’t warrant a call.
“If you’re concerned or an animal has been hanging around for many days, or seems to be deep into town, we probably want to see if we can get that animal to move along,” Churchill says.
Wherever people come into contact with wildlife, she continues, there will be conflict. But we can reduce harm by being informed and active in our communities when it comes to bears. Ultimately, she says, our contact with them is a privilege.
“They’re beautiful — I love seeing them. It’s awesome that we have so many in our state. People have to understand the responsibility that comes with wildlife living near us,” Churchill says. “Be good neighbors to our wildlife.”