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FLAGLER — On the caretaker’s property adjacent to the local state wildlife area, sheets of structural steel, once blanketed by snow but now tickled by tumbleweeds, sit stacked on the ground awaiting their eventual transformation.
Inside a nearby outbuilding sits the finished product the raw materials soon will replicate, once it’s their turn to be cut, welded and shaped into a contraption state officials have been craving for years: a better, lighter, more versatile bear trap.
Jeff Belveal, the 36-year-old Colorado Parks and Wildlife resource technician who took on the project, notes that his little slice of paradise on the plains may be home to a seemingly inordinate number of white-tailed deer, but there’s not a bear in sight. And metalworking, while among the skills he honed in pursuit of an agency gig, figures only tangentially into a job description that includes maintenance and upkeep of five state wildlife areas — everything from cleaning the toilets to fixing fence lines, maintaining roads, managing grazing and weed mitigation.
“This is extra credit,” Belveal says of the bear trap project. “All I brought to the table here was a willingness to tackle the problem.”
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Colleagues will tell you it’s much more than that, and talk at length about how Belveal’s retiring and self-effacing personality short-sells a skilled and dedicated worker. In fact, a lifetime of persistence and a penchant for problem-solving put him at the center of a collaborative effort to reimagine a trap for safely and effectively capturing problematic black bears — the only bear species living in Colorado — to relocate them, avoid putting them down and reduce chances of further conflict.
“Jeff just doesn’t do anything halfway,” says Frank McGee, who supervised Belveal when the project began, before becoming CPW’s law enforcement training manager. “He’s very self-motivated as well, and I’ve always appreciated the way he takes pride in his work. He takes each and every part of his job seriously.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates that the state’s bear population hovers between 17,000 and 20,000. A spring freeze or drought conditions can sufficiently infringe on natural food sources to nudge bears into close contact with humans — circumstances that people often exacerbate through behavior that encourages interaction and often, much to wildlife officers’ dismay, leads to fatal consequences for the bears.
Since the implementation of a new statewide bear reporting system in 2019, CPW has logged over 18,300 sightings and conflicts with bears, and nearly one-third of them involved enticements like trash cans and dumpsters. The problem has become pervasive enough that CPW recently announced it will be continuing a $1 million competitive grant program launched with state funding two years ago for local projects aimed at reducing bear conflict.
When bears persist, traps may be used to capture, tag and release them — one important strategy to avoid putting them down. Since 2015, CPW has relocated 461 bears.
But over the years, more than a dozen wildlife areas across the state have accumulated such a variety of traps that on many occasions officers scramble to find the right one for a particular situation. Many of them are old and crusted with rust. And so began the quest to sift through the features and shortcomings of the agency’s rapidly deteriorating collection and build a better bear trap — preferably one that could be adapted to any situation.
If possible, it would be produced in-house, a more economical option than buying from a vendor, which could run $25,000 per trap.
Belveal has been working on the project in fits and starts over the last two years, and so far has completed four of the six planned for his home Area 14, a swath of the state reaching from Teller County, through Colorado Springs and clear to the Kansas state line. At a cost of about $5,000 in materials plus his time on the clock, the finished traps have saved the agency an estimated $80,000.
And though the first tests of the traps still lie ahead, CPW has been so thrilled with Belveal’s ingenuity, persistence and attention to detail that the agency recently named him its outstanding technician of the year. But his can-do legacy was forged well before he reshaped a critical tool for dealing with problem bears.
Jeff Belveal discusses the capabilities of the mobile bear trap inside his workshop. Belveal worked as a steel welder for a few years to bolster his résumé for a job with CPW. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Never giving up
Walking across his property at the edge of the Flagler State Recreation Area, Belveal extends a friendly, down-home demeanor and a vice-like handshake that offers no hint of the physical trials of his childhood.
Born seven weeks premature at 3 pounds, 7 ounces, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy that triggered symptoms known as hemiplegia, muscle atrophy that weakened the entire right side of his body. With a right leg an inch shorter than his left, he walked with a limp and, into his middle school years, slept in a brace to stretch his tendons.
“My dad and mom never made excuses for me because of my disability,” Belveal says. “I was never a victim, always encouraged and told I could do anything any other man could do.”
Belveal’s parents divorced when he was 10, and he initially lived with his mom in Karval and later Brush. At 15, he moved in with his dad, who moved to Colorado Springs so Belveal could attend a small Christian high school. There, he spent his freshman year lifting weights to aid his rehabilitation. The following year he took up wrestling.
In his first year of competition, he spent virtually every match pinned to the mat. When he finally broke through with a victory his junior year, he built on that success with a work ethic and irrepressible attitude that earned him the admiration of his coach and teammates — and a winning record. A late-season injury left him with broken ribs and then pneumonia, and the physical toll simply wore him out and left him just short of earning a trip to the 2006 state tournament.
The drive that powered him to persevere didn’t stop with his prep wrestling career, and he has often leaned into its lessons. “I use and benefit from the mental toughness that sport requires on a daily basis,” he says. “You know how to dig deep. If I have a hard project or physically demanding task, I go back to my wrestling experience.
“It’s the same attitude when you’re fighting a guy and you’re on your back. Just never give up. You gotta just keep trying until something works. I apply that subconsciously to everything I do.”
His other passion — the outdoors — led him to volunteer for work building trails and helping with other conservation projects. One experience in particular left a lasting impression: a stint shadowing a CPW wildlife technician.
The way he figured it, the job essentially amounted to farming and ranching for the government, a means to spend a career immersed in the work and lifestyle he loved. From that moment, he adopted a single-minded focus: One day, he would land a job with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The most direct route might have been to pursue a college degree, but Belveal, though a more than respectable student, didn’t figure he was cut out for that. He noticed that the agency’s job requirements offered him a loophole — a college degree or relevant work experience.
Jeff Belveal was born seven weeks premature at just 3 pounds, 7 ounces. Cerebral palsy caused some of his muscles to atrophy. With a right leg an inch shorter than his left, he walked with a limp and, into his middle school years, slept in a brace to stretch his tendons. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
“I chose what was most natural to me, which was working, and I went for the relevant experience route,” he says. “And everything I did for those years leading up to getting a full-time job was focused on getting experience that would translate to my hireability with Parks and Wildlife.”
Belveal volunteered almost daily with CPW for years, intent on impressing the agency with his work ethic. He started down a professional path by taking a job with El Paso County Parks. Still, he felt he also needed to establish some trade skills to bolster his résumé. When his dad opened his own steel fabrication shop, Belveal worked for him full time from 2009-12 to get his certification as a structural steel welder.
He melded that experience with his continued CPW volunteer work. After six or seven tries — and rejections, at a time when an open CPW position drew hundreds of applicants — he figures his perseverance eventually just overwhelmed the agency.
“I got to know the HR gals and you know, they were rooting for me because I tried so many times it was kind of embarrassing,” Belveal says. “But every time I applied I learned something and would come back, you know, a little better the next time.”
In 2012, he finally got full time CPW work as a resource technician at Lake Pueblo State Park. Five years later, he landed his dream job, transferring to the Eastern Plains to live and work as a wildlife technician on a state-owned property just east of Flagler.
The bear trap project has cemented his credentials.
They were rooting for me because I tried so many times it was kind of embarrassing.
— Jeff Belveal, Colorado Parks and Wildlife resource technician
Tim Kroening, the Area 14 wildlife manager and Belveal’s supervisor, notes that preliminary discussion about whether some of the new features might be patentworthy will require further investigation. Meanwhile, other CPW areas around the state have expressed interest in replicating the new traps.
“There’s probably going to be a little bit of a learning curve, just as an expectation whenever you have something new,” Kroening says. “We may have to tweak one or two things, but I think the cool thing is we’re adapting and making a better tool that’s safer for the bear. It’s safer for us than those traps that we used to use and that’ll be time well spent. And he has missed no detail.
“I mean, this is an ingenious fabrication that is totally new,” he adds. “I don’t believe that anything else like this exists.”
Making a wish list
Belveal’s project originated at a meeting about two years ago, in the back parking lot behind the CPW offices in Colorado Springs, just off Interstate 25. Some of the most experienced wildlife officers in the state, especially where bears are concerned, milled around a few of the old traps lined up on the pavement and started formulating a wish list of features to replace the various models — some fabricated in-house, some purchased outright — that had become outdated and inoperable.
“I’ll just call them rust buckets,” Kroening says. “They were just starting to fall apart.”
The officers spitballed ideas for lightweight traps, heavier traps, traps that could sit in the back of a pickup, detailed bells and whistles to address every little concern — all with the idea of combining this laundry list into a single all-purpose contraption that would meld mobility with safety, for the benefit of both the officers and the bears.
Belveal listened and took notes. When asked if he could figure out a way to do this, a way to do that, his responses reflected what seemed like an ingrained sense that anything was possible. Definitely, he would say. Or at the very least he would promise he’d try to make it happen.
“He was not saying no,” Kroening recalls, “but trying to solve a problem, or just make life safer for the bears, for us, and coming up with just ingenious fabrication.”
There were over 18,300 sightings and conflicts with bears in Colorado in 2019, with a third of them involving trash cans and dumpsters. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Some of the issues officers reported with older models were guillotine-style doors that featured a metal panel that would slice downward as it slammed shut. That design exposed bears — and the officers themselves, as well roaming dogs when traps were needed in urban areas — to greater chance of injury. Brakes designed to slow the doors’ descent had largely worn out or become unreliable.
Some traps, designed as horizontal, elongated tubes, worked well enough to capture bears but made the follow-up work of sedating them and performing other basic procedures both physically awkward and potentially dangerous. Heavier models could be unwieldy to place, especially by a lone officer on uneven terrain.
As a baseline, Belveal started with a trap that seemed to work for a lot of the officers and then started modifying the design. As it turned out, he suggested some extras — a fancy water system, for instance — considered luxuries that added unnecessary complexity. His first presentation to wildlife officers led to simplifying and making a few adjustments.
“I spent a good amount of time, and probably an embarrassingly long amount of time, trying by trial and error to solve each problem and eventually design a prototype,” Belveal says. “Then, maybe 15 different people, professionals that know what they’re doing and trap bears regularly, gave me their feedback. And I went back to the drawing board, cut a bunch of stuff apart and tried again, brought them another prototype —and they liked it. So that’s where we are now.”
Improving on old models
The new trap, basically a rectangular box fixed atop a two-wheeled trailer, takes the best features of previous traps, and adds lightweight maneuverability as well as some new mechanical features to solve the issues that have vexed wildlife officers.
Jacks on all four corners account for uneven ground and stabilize the platform so a sudden shift doesn’t spook the bear. They also solve the problem of a trap tipping over when a bear is released. While the jacks are pretty much standard fare, Belveal’s variation involved locating the hand cranks clear of the unit for greater ease of turning.
A hatch at one end allows officers to bait the trap from the outside. (“It’s a funny sight when you open Area 14’s supply closet,” CPW spokesman Bill Vogrin says, “because they have bottles and bottles of syrup, cans of wet dog food, tubs of cake frosting and small burlap bags.
Sometimes a half-empty syrup bottle will fall from a wildlife officer’s truck when they open the door. That’s when you know they’ve been baiting a bear trap.”)
At the opposite end of the unit, a spring-loaded door opens on hinges to the side, giving a bear access to the interior — and the bait. When the bear enters and moves toward the bait, it depresses a metal panel that trips the mechanism that slams the door shut behind it. The swinging door is less likely to cause injury to a cub that might be trailing behind its mother than previous guillotine-style traps.
The door locks automatically, and stays locked until an officer opens it with a key. That feature ensures that the bear can’t pull a Houdini-like exit but also prevents sympathetic humans from releasing the animal.
But perhaps the most significant improvement grew out of Belveal’s collaboration with the wildlife officers: a horizontal side door that runs the length of the trap. The door raises to allow officers access to the tranquilized bear for purposes of tagging or other procedures, eliminating the need to climb into an enclosed space with a large animal that could, without warning, shake off the effects of sedation.
LEFT: Jeff Belveal shows a small door through which officers can bait the bear trap. RIGHT: The side door of the trap raises to allow wildlife officers to easily access a tranquilized bear. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
TOP: Jeff Belveal shows a small door through which officers can bait the bear trap. BOTTOM: The side door of the trap raises to allow wildlife officers to access a tranquilized bear. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Officers often must deal with the trapped bears under challenging conditions, sometimes alone at night in a remote setting far from backup, when both human and bear are under stress. Kroening recalls that, at that initial meeting to discuss a wish list, officers zeroed in on such side access as a priority. Now, it’s a reality.
“I don’t know much about those things,” Belveal says, “but I figured that’s a huge officer safety issue that we’ve solved here. What we’ve done is provided complete and total access to the bear. You can do all the work you want from a nice, safe place.”
Belveal included an interior water source to help cool bears during transport as well as a light that can make it easier to see and tranquilize a captured bear at night. Another feature he added: a separate panel that can slide into place from the trap’s roof to effectively divide the trap into two enclosures — a tool that can be used to separate a mother bear from her cubs to ensure the little ones’ safety should the larger bear become rambunctious.
Once a bear has been examined, transported and is ready for release, the officer unlocks the rear door and moves a spring mechanism into position. Then, after moving to the safety of the truck bed at the opposite end of the trap, the officer shifts a lever and the door springs open. Belveal also created a version with a slightly different, cable-operated release mechanism, and experience in the field will determine which works best.
“Everything we liked is now all in this one trap,” Kroening says, “and we have four of them.”
The raw materials for two more that Belveal will construct lie just outside his makeshift metal shop.
Jeff Belveal shifts the movable doors on the mobile bear trap. The new traps are more mobile than their predecessors, and offer more safety for both bears and wildlife officers. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Awaiting the ultimate test
The traps haven’t yet been put to the test, which makes Belveal uneasy — even as everyone around him voices complete confidence that they represent a marked improvement. He’d like to have video cameras track a bear both as it interacts with the unsprung trap as well as once it’s captured so he can fine tune any deficiencies.
“Everyone’s raving about them and we’ve never tested them one time,” he says. “There might be something simple that doesn’t work, or the bear doesn’t like the color or something. I keep whining about it and then everyone just tells me, ‘Jeff, they’re gonna work. They’re the best.’ They assure me that there’s nothing wrong with them.
“But I’m nervous.”
His colleagues write that off to the unpretentious and humble manner of a guy who never says no — whether the job is making sure the rest rooms in his purview are spotless or cobbling together a better bear trap.
“I am a very blessed man,” Belveal says. “I kind of live at work, just like a farmer. And I pop out in the morning and I’ve got a couple of barns full of equipment and I just mobilize from there. So I never do the same thing twice. I’m never bored. ”