Rural subdivision apparently solves its bear problem

CRYSTAL LAKES – Last year, this rural foothills subdivision 50 miles northwest of Fort Collins was bear central, with 100 homes and trailers ravaged for food by mid-September.

By the end of 2005, the total was 131 such incidents.

Residents keep count of bear break-ins on a painted plywood bear at the Crystal Lakes entrance. For this year it reads, “13.”

The turnaround is a rare success in Colorado’s chronic problems with bears that abandoned foods of the forest for Dumpsters, garbage cans and picnic tables in resort towns and mountain communities


Who's dumpster diving?  Photo:  Colorado Division of Wildlife

“People here are learning you can’t feed the bears,” said Jim Tiffin, a year-round Crystal Lakes resident. “We had a people problem more than we had a bear problem.”

For decades, feeding bears was a way of life at Crystal Lakes where empty lots outnumber homes, trailers and cabins on 4,800 acres surrounded by federal forest.

Along the winding roads, there’s an endless display of bear-shaped signs, mighty bears sculpted from logs and porch kitsch with sweet-eyed bruins eager for a snack.

The wildlife-loving residents installed scores of bird feeders where generations of bears dined on seeds, fat and dried berries left in bird feeders.

Inspired by bear sightings, some folks left dinner scraps on decks, picnic tables and barbecue grills, said Tiffin, who built a home at Crystal Lakes in 1992 and moved in full-time two years ago.

One woman, fondly known as the Pancake Lady, cooked up batches of the warm treats to entice bears, he said.

One man put out a rubber tire filled with cooking grease and spoiled meat to lure bears close to his house so he could take pictures, said Curtis Livingston.

“Another guy used to put his garbage outside his house to attract bears,” said Livingston, who has lived at Crystal Lakes since 1995.

The result was bear break-ins – broken windows, torn screens, chewed doors, smashed plywood, pillaged kitchens and massive repair bills.

Trailers of all sizes were favored supermarkets.

“The bears learned that they were lunch pails,” said Mary Duncan, who owned a cabin at Crystal Lakes for 22 years and moved up year-round seven years ago.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife was routinely summoned to deal with the “bad” bears. Some were moved, but returned to resume life feeding on human handouts.

And, when a troublesome bear was caught again, the animals was killed under the DOW’s two strikes rule.

“We had chronic problems up there with bear break-ins. We averaged 100 a year for five years,” said Tyler Baskfield, of the DOW.

DOW officers patiently warned about feeding wildlife, issued tickets to repeat offenders and added Crystal Lakes to the long list of mountain resorts and Front Range communities where people created a bear problem.

But the bear-feeding culture at Crystal Lakes collapsed this year and it may have started with Tiffin.

Tiffin and his wife, Jane Tiffin, who kept well-stocked bird feeders around their house until last year, when a DOW cage trap caught a 300-pound male.

“We spent five hours watching that bear until an officer arrived,” Jim Tiffin said. The bear was a suspect in dozens of break-ins at Crystal Lakes.

“It stood up and looked at us. It lay down with its head on its paws,” Jim Tiffin said. “When the DOW officer came, he shot the bear in front of my eyes.

“I cried,” he said.

“I cried too,” Jane Tiffin said.

The DOW officer also got weepy, the Tiffins said.

“I realized then that’s what feeding the bears does to them,” Jim Tiffin said. “It become my passion to save the bears.”

The Tiffins, Livingston, Duncan and other residents formed a Bear Aware Team that has tirelessly educated residents about the perils of feeding bears.

The subdivision web site now offers tips on scaring bears away, bear-proofing homes and warnings about teaching bears to associate homes with food.

“We have domesticated these animals,” Jim Tiffin said. “We have to change our ways.”

This year, there’s a new look at Crystal Lakes.

Outdoor garbage cans were banned and residents were asked to drop trash at an enclosed bear-proof Dumpster. Solar powered electric fences now surround some houses, cabins and trailers.

“The electric fences are cheaper than a bear break-in,” Jim Tiffin said.

Most weekend residents now haul their trailers and campers home each week. Last year, 80 percent of the break-ins were trailers, Tiffin said.

Only one of this year’s break-ins involved a trailer, he said. Last week, a bear broke into an ATV that Tiffin suspects was loaded with snacks.

Tiffin said some homes aren’t easy targets now because of “unwelcome mats” – wooden slats with aluminum screws drilled through – that line decks, entry doors and window sills.

Tiffin calls the devices “Pricket fences” because the bears don’t get hurt, but they get the “go away” message.

“I believe people are learning,” said Tiffin on an afternoon patrol last week.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife, which handles hundreds of bear break-in reports each year from resort towns and Front Range communities, is delighted.

“Crystal Lakes is a shining example of people that have gone out of their way to change their behavior,” said Baskfield, of the DOW.

Tiffin, the DOW and other members of the Bear Aware Team didn’t expect so much success, so a special bear hunting season on 600 acres of greenbelt around Crystal Lakes started in September.

Twelve bow hunters, including several Crystal Lake residents, were screened and certified after each consistently put an arrow through a 3-inch target from 45 yards.

The Tiffins said some residents opposed the hunt, but most homeowners who responded to a poll agreed to let hunters on their land.

None of the bow hunters wanted to be interviewed.

Bow hunters have only a 5 percent success rate with bears, so the Tiffins and the Bear Aware team will stay busy with the education program.

“We can teach the bears to stay away, we just can’t teach some people,” he said.

The bird feeders around the Tiffins’ home are empty and Jane Tiffin misses seeing the finches, chickadees, stellar jays and other summer visitors to the yard.

“But it’s worth it,” she said.

The Associated Press

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