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
"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
eats between 20 to 30 pounds a day, which translates
as many as 50,000 of the small erries./Photo by
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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."