The nature of the tight box canyon that cradles Telluride, Colorado, means that it's only a few blocks to the edge of civilization. From my bedroom, I hear coyotes howl. Elk graze on the valley floor right next to the bike path. And black bears wander through town in search of snacks -- especially at this time of year.
By mid-November, most black bears in Colorado settle in for a 200-day nap, which means they are consuming 20,000 calories per day before bedtime. To add perspective, Olympian Michael Phelps allegedly ate 12,000 each day to win eight gold medals in Beijing. If calories are as intangible to you as the value of the Icelandic Krona, here -- according to olympics.fanhouse.com and various other web circulations -- is the breakdown of Phelps' daily diet: three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise; two cups of coffee; one five-egg omelet; one bowl of grits; three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar; three chocolate-chip pancakes; two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread; two pounds of enriched pasta; an entire pizza; and multiple energy drinks that pack 1,000 calories each. Most of us mortals consume roughly 2,000 calories per day. Bears almost double Phelps' mighty menu.
Unlike Phelps, a black bear's diet is 90 percent vegetarian. The climate in southwest Colorado is arid, and to my eye, the woods are not exactly a cornucopia. Wild raspberries grow to the size of my smallest fingernail. Currant bushes never seem burdened by too many berries, and how many calories do a few bugs really pack? It seems like bleak foraging out there. I don't know how a bear finds 20,000 calories in the woods every day. And, actually, some bears don't. Instead, they lumber into town to feast from trashcans, homes and restaurants.
The result, sadly, is a "two strikes" policy, enforced by Department of Wildlife officials, that advocates relocating a bear after its first infraction and killing it the second time it's caught breaking into garbage cans or homes. The local solution is that our alley trash bins are reinforced with locking mechanisms. When the first locking containers were introduced in Telluride in the early 1990s, bears learned to tip them over and sit upon them, squashing the lid so their marauding paws could explore the epicurean delights within. It was quite a show: Come morning, scattered trashcans littered the alleys like ten pins. Our municipal laws now enforce compliance with a second or third-generation model of locking polycart that is far more complicated. So far, the bears seem to find it impenetrable.
As long as we're diligent about locking up the trash -- and the doors to our houses -- this system works pretty well. To my knowledge, no bears were put down here this summer. Bears in other Colorado mountain towns, however, weren't as lucky. Aspen seemed to have the most problems: Bears entered numerous homes and raided refrigerators, broke into a restaurant's outdoor freezer (the owner finally installed an electrified doormat in front of the freezer as a deterrent) and had encounters with locals, some of which resulted in human injury. In the nearby town of Ouray, a bear killed a woman who, it turned out, had been feeding wildlife through her backyard fence for quite some time.
It's an age-old problem. Anyone who lives too close to a neighbor has likely experienced an unpleasant interaction. Bears, however, are neighbors of a different beast -- literally. The problem is complicated, but we humans should shoulder most of the blame. Our edibles are ripe for the taking. If I were a bear faced with scavenging in the woods or gorging in town, I'd be hightailing it to a dumpster. Robert Frost wrote "good fences make good neighbors." More fences, in a loose interpretation, are in fact part of the solution: Clearly, we need to prevent bears from habituating to human food by making access impossible.
It's soon time for the bears to bed down, and the problem will be temporarily solved. But come spring, Colorado's black bears will awaken from dreams of French toast, pizza, pasta, grits and ham sandwiches. They'll be hungrier than Michael Phelps, and we mustn't let them swim in our dumpsters.