A young male bear strolls into a resident’s yard near the Smiley Building on Monday to get into trash and investigate a backyard chicken coop. The dark ear tag indicates that it was captured and tagged as part of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife bear study./Photo by Bryan Peterson, Bear Smart Durango.

Smarter than the average bear

Bear Smart Durango hosts demo-laden bear festival
by Tracy Chamberlin

Instead of just telling residents how to be bear aware, they’re going to show them. Bear Smart Durango is taking the hands-on approach with the Spring Bear Wake-up Social from 4-8 p.m. Thursday at the Durango Discovery Museum, giving residents a chance to get their hands dirty while learning techniques to prevent human-bear conflicts.

It’s also a reminder that our furry neighbors are out of hibernation.

Each spring they come out of their dens hungry and must return full for the winter. Whether its garbage or chicken coops, the reason the bear arrives in the back yard is all about food.

“What’s your comfort level of having bears in your yard?” said Bryan Peterson, director of Bear Smart Durango since it began in 2003. “What’s the comfort level of your neighbors?”

Foraging in garbage cans and hanging around urban developments is a learned behavior, not a natural one. Bears come to know that high-calorie snacks like bird seed, pet food or human trash can be easy to get at with little effort.

“We’re in essence training bears how to come to our homes,” Peterson said. “They think they’ve got our approval.”

Some simple steps, like using bear-proof garbage receptacles, can help prevent bear-human conflicts.

The simple equation for bears is the most energy gained for the least amount exerted. Garbage cans that smell of high-calorie human foods or easy access to a bird feeder is alluring.

Out of the 825 bear sightings reported in the area in 2011, 598 were bears in trash, according to data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. That amounts to 72 percent of all sightings. “By far, the biggest attractant is trash,” Peterson said.

During the event, waste management companies will show attendees how to properly use bear-proof trash cans.

The second-biggest biggest bear attractant is bird feeders. Colorado Parks and Wildlife website recommends feeding birds during months that bears are not active. According to the site, a 50-pound bag of bird seed has more than 87,000 calories, which can be worth a bear’s time and trouble.

Peterson said people tend to think their responsibility ends after picking up trash spilled by bears. Oftentimes they don’t see the effects their behaviors have, and wildlife officers end up having to deal with the problem down the road. It can be a difficult experience for all involved and is one of the reasons that preventing the human-bear conflict is important.

“Most bears that hang around urban areas tend not to do very well,” Peterson said. “They tend to die very quickly.”

According to a 2008 study on black bears near Lake Tahoe, bears in urban areas had higher mortality rates than reproductive rates. And mortality rates due to anthropogenic, or human, causes was on the rise. Data from the study showed a “high level of mortality among urban female bears, particularly during the first two years of life.”

Even when residents are bear aware, hands-on experiences can make a difference. One of the demonstrations residents can partake in is how to use bear spray, providing them with practical experience before they get into a situation when they need to use it.

Another exhibition is electric fencing for backyard chicken coops, so everyone who wants to know how to protect their chickens can see it for themselves.

Backyard coops have been springing up with greater frequency in the wake of the sustainability movement. But, they are also a tempting treat for hungry bears.

Peterson thinks a middle road can be found between supporting the sustainable lifestyle and preventing human-bear conflicts. One way is electric fencing around backyard coops, which he said is the only sure-fire way to keep bears from getting in.

Electric fencing is currently not allowed within city limits, but it’s something he thinks is worth looking into.

Another group represented at the event is Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which has just entered the second year of a five-year research project in the Durango area.

In the spring of 2011, Durango was selected by the state as ground zero for the study of black bears and their human interactions. The city was chosen because urban development is surrounded by high-quality bear habitat.

As part of the study, bears were fitted with GPS telemetry collars, hair snare stations were set up to collect genetic material and surveys were sent out to local residents.

According to Parks and Wildlife, more than 5,300 surveys were sent out in January and after a couple of tries, 52 percent were returned.
The project is considered a longitudinal study, which means the black bears are observed repeatedly over a period of time; however, the agency is considering releasing a progress report this fall. The final results won’t be available until 2016.

Although plenty of pamphlets and brochures are available at the Spring Bear Wake-up Social, this event is about getting hands-on experience with preventive measures.

Author of Great Colorado Bear Stories, Laura Pritchett, is the keynote speaker. Following her talk and slideshow, there is an open mic session where residents can share their own bear stories. Other specifics of the community event include a Bear Scat Eating Contest (gluten free, of course) and live music.

Residents in bear country might know there are ways to prevent human-bear conflicts, but it’s another thing when they get their hands dirty.

For details or more info. go to: www.bearsmartdurango.org or www.wildlife.state.co.us.