Bear necessities
Bear deterrents have worked, but vigilance still needed

Bear necessities

Black bears are common in our area, however Bear Smart and COWP urge residents to avoid any interaction that could be caused by having bear attractants like bird feeders or dirty grills on your property./ Courtesy photo

Kathleen O'Connor - 04/25/2024

One day, back in 2002, Bryan Peterson just wanted to do some early morning grocery shopping. As he pushed his cart down the aisle, he couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two women. One of the women casually invited her friend to visit her mobile home community in Durango to “come see the bears.” As it turned out, the residents there were intentionally throwing food items, such as spaghetti, pizza and popcorn, into the unlocked community dumpster to create their own wildlife-viewing experience.

“They would set up lawn chairs and watch as the bears crossed the highway and jumped into the dumpsters to feed off the trash,” Peterson says. In 2003, after witnessing several incidents like the one at the mobile home park, Peterson and a handful of other community black bear advocates founded the nonprofit organization Bear Smart, of which Peterson is the director. The mission is to foster “a better understanding and appreciation of black bears and to reduce human-bear conflict in the greater Durango community.” 

Today, thanks to concerted efforts by residents and local government agencies, bears getting into trash is a less-common occurrence around Durango than during the bear-watching-in-lawn-chairs incident. However, minimizing human-bear conflicts in areas shared by both species continues to present some challenges. As the human population grows and warmer temperatures contribute to shorter bear hibernation periods, the potential for human-bear conflicts will likely increase.

To meet these challenges, Bear Smart worked in 2022 with the La Plata County Bear Working Group and Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado to secure a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) grant for initiatives that mitigate encounters between humans and bears. More CPW grant funding came in 2023, and as a result, several preventative human-bear conflict measures were implemented, including the purchase of 800 residential bear-resistant trash cans for both city and county residences; 100 residential bear-resistant trash cans for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe; metal bear-resistant trash containers for Durango School District 9-R, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe campus and recreational areas around Vallecito. The funding also allowed for the purchase of 40 food storage lockers for San Juan National Forest campgrounds. Bear deterrents, such as “unwelcome” mats that elicit an electric shock when a bear steps on them, as well as scare devices including motion-activated lights and high-decibel alarms were also purchased.

The funds also went toward a cost-share program for county residents looking to build electric fences aimed at protecting chickens, beehives and fruit trees against opportunistic bears. Additionally, La Plata County’s Animal Protection hired a bear resource officer last May to help residents with human-bear conflicts and bear mitigation resources from mid-March through November. Through the grant, The Good Food Collective was also able to add additional fruit-gleaning crews to assist residents who have bear-attracting fruit trees on their properties.

Bear problem or people problem?

In areas like Durango, where human settlements overlap with wildlife habitats, particularly those of bears, the risk of human-bear conflict is high. This risk is further exacerbated when individuals fail to secure their trash cans, inadvertently providing bears with an easy food source. Once a bear becomes conditioned to a specific food source or area, breaking this behavior is challenging due to their intelligence and keen sense of smell (Bears can detect a food source up to 5 miles away!). 

Ultimately, this could cause a bear to become more vulnerable to relocation or, even more tragically, lethal removal. The state of Colorado has a strict policy for dealing with bears that exhibit nuisance behavior, such as killing chickens or causing property damage. This policy is known as the two-strike policy, which means that on the first offense, the bear is relocated. However, if the bear continues to exhibit such behavior and commits a second offense, it will be euthanized. This policy underscores the importance of taking preventative measures to minimize human-bear conflicts to protect both humans and bears.  

A simple yet crucial step in minimizing human-bear conflicts is to ensure that residential trash cans are properly secured. In 2011, in response to a significant rise in human-bear conflicts, CPW began a six-year study in Durango to examine the effects of “bear proofing” in urban landscapes. The research found that using bear-resistant trash containers reduced conflicts by 50 percent. The study suggested that “success in reducing human-bear conflicts will likely depend upon our ability to change human behavior.” Peterson agrees. “People can get upset when a bear causes them problems, but they’re not linking it to the fact that they’re not securing their trash properly or bringing in their birdfeeders or that they have an unprotected compost bin or chicken coop,” he said. “Unfortunately, they don’t realize they’re attracting the bear.” 

Keeping the bears away

Preventative measures are essential for keeping human-bear conflicts at a minimum. Both CPW and Bear Smart recommend removing bird feeders from your yard during bear season. Bird feeders are strong attractants for bears coming out of hibernation in search of high-caloric food loads. Other suggestions include burning excess food from barbeque grills and cleaning them after each use; utilizing electric fencing to protect beehives, chickens, compost and gardens; picking fruit from fruit trees or, better yet, enrolling in The Good Food Collective’s fruit gleaning program; and never leaving food, trash or anything with a scent that could attract a bear in your car. Also, if you happen to see overturned trash containers or trash accessed by bears, it’s important to report it through La Plata County’s Bear Hotline (see below.)

While human-bear conflicts can be concerning, it’s important to remember that bears are not inherently aggressive toward humans, though there are rare exceptions, particularly when protective sows have cubs in tow. Nonetheless, most black bear encounters end without incident, as bears generally prefer to avoid humans.

“They would rather stay away from people as much as possible,” Peterson said. Another thing to remember about black bears is that they are, as Peterson puts it, excellent problem-solvers.

“It’s pretty amazing how flexible they can be,” he adds. “They’re like really smart dogs.” 

For more information on black bears and resources for minimizing bear-human conflicts, visit If you see bear activity around trash or are interested in obtaining bear deterrents, call the bear hotline at: (970) 247-BEAR (2327). ?