Bear necessities
City and county work to get a grip on bear problems

A young bear devours the remnants of a bird feeder in a yard near Lemon Reservoir earlier this summer. A 7-pound tube of sunflower seeds contains around 12,000 calories, an easy target for a bear stocking up on winter fat./ Photos courtesy Bear Smart Durango.

by Missy Votel

As the local bear population hunkers down for a long winter’s sleep, city and county officials are also hunkering down to devise better bear coping strategies.

While bear season in Durango was milder than many other Colorado towns, most notably Aspen where bear intrusions into homes saw a disturbing increase, it was nearly twice as busy as last year. What was especially troublesome, however, was the fact that bears’ natural food sources – berries, acorns and the like – were in abundance this year.

According to Bryan Peterson, of Bear Smart Durango, there have been nearly 530 reported bear sighting this year-to-date, compared to a total of 228 in 2008. Granted, there were some glitches with data collection in 2008, in which a few months of reporting weren’t tracked, however 2009’s numbers proved surprising even to Peterson. “July and August were way busier than I would have expected,” Peterson said. “It’s a bit baffling, because bears had a great natural food supply this year.”

Bear Smart, which bases its reports on sightings culled from its web site as well as the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Durango Herald Bear Tracker, went from as many as 175 reportings in August to nearly nil this week. “It started to die down the first of September and dropped off to nearly nothing this week.”

Bears typically begin hibernating in mid-October. However, a few, die-hards are still bumbling around in search of some last-minute winter calories. “If the acorns are still there, they might stay out a little longer,” he said. “If there’s food, they’re not going to pass it up.”

It is this drive for easy food that has kept bears returning year after year and kept residents and wildlife officials on their toes. In the three years Bear Smart has been tracking sightings, the traditional hot spots have been the west and northwest sides of town. Reasons for this include proximity to public lands, a wide swath or bordering oak brush and easily accessible garbage. “The whole east side has had very few bear issues this year, most bears tend to come from the west,” he said. And, despite common misconceptions, 90 percent of bear reports come from within city limits. “There’s a huge availability of trash in town,” he said.

Peterson said many of the bears reported this year were younger bears who likely learned the fine art of dumpster diving as cubs during the banner year of 2007, which saw nearly 1,300 hundred bear reports in town.

In an effort to combat the problem – there were 46 bears killed or put down in the summer of 2007 – the City of Durango enacted a bear policy in September of that year. Under the two-strike plan, residents who have their garbage broken into twice are required to get a bear-proof garbage can from the city for an additional $6 a month or face a $1,000 fine. However, Peterson notes the policy lacks any real bite, with enforcement lacking for various reasons, mostly funding. For example, in July, of the 17 incidents investigated by city code enforcement, only six were issued citations. Furthermore, of the nearly 4,400 residential city trash customers, only 206 have bear-proof containers.

A non secured city trash container lays on its side after being raided by a bear in a downtown alley in August. There were more than 500 reported bear sightings, 90 percent in town, this summer according to Bear Smart Durango, making this the busiest summer since 2007, despite the abundance of natural food./Photos courtesy Bear Smart Durango.

“Durango’s one of the few communities that doesn’t have a wildlife ordinance,” said Peterson. “Yet, it’s been proven to work in other places. Eighty percent of bear encounters involve human food or are trash related.”

More than a dozen Colorado municipalities have adopted wildlife ordinances with success. Perhaps the shining example is Vail, where bear proof container requirements resulted in a 46 percent drop in reported bear incidents over two years. “An ordinance is not going to wipe out the problem but it will reduce it,” he said. “Any other approach, such as relocation, is just a band-aid, costs money and is pointless.”

Peterson also noted that residential trash, long considered the root of the bear problem, is not solely to blame. Many of the city’s commercial containers, such as the round 300-gallon plastic ones at city parks, are easy pickings in well.

Assistant City Manager Greg Caton said the city will be working on a bear ordinance this winter. Although other ordinances, such as Vail’s, have been successful, he said Durango does not necessarily fit the mountain-ski town mold. “We will look to the best practices and modify them to fit Durango’s needs,” he said. “We really are different than those other communities; we are more of an ‘urban’ community.”

He said the city is already getting a jump on the commercial problem and is studying the use of large, metal containers with locking lids. “The hope is by next spring, we’ll have them in place for the parks that need them and offer them to other commercial customers that want them.”

As far as residential customers go, he said 5 percent participation in bearproof containers is not bad, adding that not all residents necessarily live in high-bear traffic areas. “I do think there’s a fair amount of public awareness on the issue, and it’s increasing,” he said. “People feel it’s the right thing to do. They get the bearproof can and don’t have to worry about it.”

Such public awareness and education was one of the goals of La Plata County’s Living With Wildlife Advisory Board. Based on the group’s recommendations, La Plata County adopted its own wildlife ordinance last spring. The new law requires county resident to secure their trash from bears and to have containers placed out only between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. on the day of pick up. First offenses bring warnings, while second violations bring citations and fines starting at $200. However, much like the city, enforcement has been scarce with no citations issued for the summer.

Wildlife Advisory Board Chairwoman Maureen Keilty said the group took an educational stance for its first year, seeking to raise awareness among rural residents. However, she would like to see the effort stepped up next year. “I believe what we’ve done really has raised awareness, but for next year, we would like to recommend the county include enforcement with the ordinance as opposed to merely an emphasis on education,” she said.

The wildlife advisory board will also simplify its name to “Wild Smart,” beginning next spring, at which time it will also debut its new web site: “We want it to become a much more reliable resource,” she said.

And while the business of trash proof containers and ordinances can get a bit complex, Keilty noted the basic notion of keeping trash away from bears really is not all that complicated. “A ’69 beat-up VW van is my bear-proof container,” she said, adding that she never sees bears on her four acres. For now, simple German engineering seems to do the trick, “although sometimes there are paw prints on the outside.” •