Durango gears up for bear season
Ample food supply causes fewer conflicts, but more vigilance needed

Bryan Peterson, founder of Bear Smart Durango, sits next to a choke cherry bush near the Lion’s Den, overlooking town, last week. The bush is one of many in the area that is beginning to ripen, just in time for the annual feeding frenzy of local black bears./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

W ith abundant natural food sources available, the local bear population has been a little incognito as of late. Yet, local bear experts warn that just because the bears are not visibly present in town, the possibility of human-bear conflicts has not gone away. In fact, as Durango continues to expand into bear habitat, they warn that human-bear encounters will only become more frequent.

"I see this problem getting worse before it gets better," said Bryan Peterson, of Bear Smart Durango. Peterson helped found the nonprofit cooperative group last year in an effort to reduce human-bear conflicts. For the past two years, the group, which is funded, in part, by the City of Durango, La Plata County and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has sponsored "Be Bear Smart Week" in August with the goal of educating local residents on bear behavior. Peterson said Bear Smart kicks its campaign into high gear this time of year to coincide with the annual bear feeding frenzy.

"Right now, we're just trying to educate the public and give people a better understanding of what they can do to prevent bears from accessing human food," he said.

According to Melody Miller, district wildlife manger for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, bears begin to pack on the pounds in earnest beginning in late summer.

"Late August - early September, these guys are really going to kick it in," she said. "They've got to pack on enough fat to keep them going for several months while they're sleeping."

Peterson said that the average adult black bear feeds for about 20 hours a day, consuming between 20 to 30 pounds of food. Most of this comes in the form of choke cherries, acorns, rose hips and other wild berries and nuts. Miller said the past two summers have seen enough moisture to produce ample amounts of natural bear food, resulting in fewer bears in town.

"There's a ton of acorns, a ton of choke cherries," she said.

Although she stopped short of making a prediction for this upcoming bear season, she did say if current conditions persist, the outlook is favorable.

"If we can continue getting moisture, it's not only going to be to our benefit, but to the bears as well," she said.

In-town bear activity over the last two seasons has been mild compared to the years of '99, '01 and '02. During those years, severe drought and late frosts sent bears looking for alternative food sources, resulting in as many as 20 calls a day for Miller.

Bryan Peterson holds a handful of nearly ripe choke cherries. During late summer, the typical black bear eats between 20 to 30 pounds a day, which translates to
as many as 50,000 of the small erries./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

"The last year and a half, so far, hasn't been that bad," she said. "So far this summer, we've had a few bears who were trash addicts, and in '03, we had a few bears come down in the spring and then we didn't have any calls until the later part of October."

Jack Rogers, Durango director of public works, said his waste collection crews have noticed a similar trend.

"The crews look for signs of bears, like overturned containers, but haven't noticed it as much this year," he said. "People haven't been plagued as much as they have in the past."

While availability of natural food sources is important in keeping bears at bay, Miller said it is only part of the equation.

"With some areas we are seeing people taking a proactive approach: putting grills away, bringing bird feeders in at night and removing pet food from outside," she said.

However, she said these types of people are more the exception than the rule.

"We still have people who aren't doing anything," she said.

Typically, the DOW makes an effort to educate these people on proper bear etiquette during routine calls, she said. However, if after being issued a warning the party continues to attract bears, the DOW can issue citations with fines ranging from $68 for first-time offenders to $1,000 for third-timers.

"When people call in with problems, we'll work with them. We do a site visit and point out things they are doing wrong and issue a warning," Miller said. "But people who don't do anything after we talk to them, we'll go ahead and write a ticket."

And while the sting of $68 may hurt a homeowner, it is nothing compared to what happens to the bear the homeowner has managed to attract. According to DOW protocol, a problem bear is tagged upon its first contact and then released back in the wild. If the bear is caught again, it is put down.

"Basically, it's a two strikes rule," she said.

Fortunately, Miller said she has only had one fatal repeat offender in her six years as a DOW officer.

"We use our discretion," she said. "I decided to go ahead and put one down because she was breaking into houses - she would have gotten herself into 4 trouble."

Two bear-proof containers sit in Fassbinder Park. The city installed the special
containers in Fassbinder and Lion’s Den, two areas that have seen a lot of bear
activity in the past. The city also has similar containers available for city residents
for $150./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

It is this type of situation that Peterson and Miller are working to avoid. However, as Durango edges out into traditional bear habitat, the frequency of such episodes will likely only increase.

"We have a lot of people moving and developing in the oak brush and aspen stands, and that's a key habitat for bears," said Miller. "And anytime that happens, you are going to have more contact with bears."

Peterson pointed out that, historically the area has been prime bear habitat.

"Just look around, every hillside is covered with scrub oak," she said.

As a result, it is up to the humans to learn how to deal with living in bear country, not vice versa.

"It's not so much bears coming into town, as town is where the natural bear food is," he said. "This is not a bear issue, it's a people issue, and it's up to the residents of Durango to resolve it."

As such, education will be key in coming years to help any more bears from meeting an untimely fate. For its part, Bear Smart has held informational bear presentations, collaborated with the city on a bear video and worked with the city to obtain bear-proof containers for residents and parks.

"The city is now making bear-proof containers available to city residents who want them, so it's a start," said Peterson.

Public Works Director Jack Rogers said the city bought about a dozen of the containers last year. So far, six residents have anted up the $150 for the special containers. Bear-proof trash receptacles also have been placed in Fassbinder Park and at the Lion's Den, atop the Fort Lewis College Mesa.

In honor of the upcoming Be Bear Smart Week, the group is sponsoring a talk Aug. 12 at the Smiley Building with Dolores black bear biologist Tom Beck and noted black bear researcher, Dr. Lynn Rogers, regarded by many as the "Jane Goodall of black bears."The following day, the group will host an educational walk through bear country with Lynn Rogers and local author David Peterson. Behind the scenes, Lynn Rogers will meet with city, county, Forest Service and DOW officials to discuss the bear issue.

Peterson said he thinks such efforts are beginning to have an effect by opening up dialogue among residents.

"I think people now think about the bear problem more and talk about it more," he said.

While he thinks this is a step in the right direction, Peterson said the work is far from over. Looking to the future, he said he would like to work with developers to ensure that steps are taken avoid human-bear conflicts. He also warned against residents becoming lulled into a false sense of security by recent years' relatively light bear activity.

"Last year we caught a lucky break," he said. "We need to take the right steps now to try to resolve conflicts with bears and be prepared for a bad bear season. This is not an issue that's going to be resolved in a few years. It's going to take some time."





News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index