Dillon Ranger District urges proper food storage to avoid bear interactions
May 30, 2017
Area campers have experienced an uptick in bear encounters around Summit County the last two years and the local U.S. Forest Service office is taking action to prevent potential conflicts that could be dangerous.
The Dillon Ranger District issued a forest order last week concerning proper food storage practices for each of its designated campgrounds and a few other popular sites. Being found out of compliance is a pricey mistake, coming with a fine of as much as $5,000 for an individual and twice that amount for a group, as well as potential imprisonment of up to six months per offense.
"This year we're focusing on education and increasing our patrols with both law enforcement and office folks, and there will be a lot more people passing by," said Ashley Nettles, Dillon Ranger District wildlife biologist. "People are usually pretty good, but if campers are told a few times and are still not obeying the food storage order, it's up to the discretion of forest staff and you can be ticketed."
The mandate pertains to specified campgrounds on the district, including on Dillon Reservoir, in addition to the Blue River, Cataract and Green Mountain Reservoir campgrounds, all north of Silverthorne. High-traffic, undeveloped areas in Rock Creek, Peru Creek and Keystone Gulch drainages are identified in the order.
The three named locations, on top of sites in the Montezuma area, were particular problem spots for human-bear interactions in the last couple of years. The ranger district subsequently announced a temporary food storage requirement at Rock Creek and a full closure to camping along County Road 5 toward Montezuma — the latter of which has since become permanent.
Officials at the ranger district don't see the stipulation as an inconvenience or obstacle to recreating just the same as in the past for backpackers and overnight campers. Every other district on the White River National Forest has had such rules in place for three years, and it's more a matter for the Dillon District becoming consistent with the rest of the forest as bear activity increases.
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"It's not asking a lot to tell people not to leave food out, and put it in a hard-sided vehicle or bear-resistant container," said Bill Jackson, Dillon District Ranger. "It's a good standard practice to keep a clean camp anyway, and keep food secure from wildlife, whether it's bears, birds, chipmunks or other critters who could get into it."
Specifically, the order urges avoiding leaving food, trash or any other possible attractants unattended at a campsite. That means after eating, or perhaps filleting freshly caught fish, do not head out for a hike or depart camp altogether without sufficiently placing food or remnants locked in a car, sanctioned container or animal-proof food locker. Hanging food from a tree, 10 feet high and 4 feet from the trunk or branches in a bear bag is also a permitted method.
The idea is to hamper dangers to either the camper or backpacker, but wildlife as well. If a bear gets into someone's tent looking for food, for instance, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers operate on a two-strike policy for fear the animal will become habituated and come back around for another free meal.
When CPW can locate the animal, it is sedated, tagged and relocated in the hopes it will not be tempted back into the same scenario. A second offense, though, and a bear will be euthanized.
"People need to understand that's done for human health and safety," said Mike Porras, spokesman for CPW's northwest region. "More and more people are recreating, and more people are in Colorado to enjoy nature, and we encourage that. But it's very, very important that if they're recreating in the Colorado backcountry where there's wildlife and bears, they need to be responsible and try to prevent conflicts. That not only protects humans, but protects wildlife as well."
Summit County, which also includes neighboring Grand for CPW logs, pales in comparison to the Steamboat Springs area for bear relocations and killings due to repeated aggressive or human-provoked, learned behaviors. Two bears were put down May through December in 2015, and one killed and three moved over that same period in 2016. The Steamboat region required 52 animals handled — either shot or relocated — in 2015 and 25 in 2016.
"Fortunately, compared to the amount of people recreating, the number remains very low," added Porras. "But we're trying to prevent that one incident, or any incident. We have robust populations of bears and the key is education."
To help in the effort, the Dillon Ranger District will for the first time provide large, permanent food storage lockers at each of the Blue River Campground's 24 sites, and also two to be shared at the five spots at the Cataract Campground. For other locations, and backpackers especially, it will offer rentals out of its Silverthorne office (680 Blue River Parkway) of smaller bear canisters at a $5 nightly rate. Similar products are also available for rent or purchase at area outdoor retailers.
Although the new restrictions pertain to the three areas on the district and all designated campgrounds, district staff requests that these strategies be used at all locations and at all times.
"We're starting seeing a lot more encounters with bears and campers," said Nettles. "There have been animals that in broad daylight are walking into camp, not being discouraged by regular hazing techniques to shoo them away and showing pretty emboldened behavior. It is a big deal, and it doesn't take much to get a bear snooping around your tent."