Bearing down
Increased bear activity stirs action from City Council and community

Bearing down

The Durango City Council's proposed emergency ordinance would levy a fine for first-time trash offenders instead of a warning./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Tracy Chamberlin - 08/31/2017

He thought it would only last 10 years. With a community like Durango, the organization just wouldn’t be needed after a decade. That was almost 15 years ago.

“We thought in 2003 when we started Bear Smart, we’d be done in 10 years. This is a progressive community, and we wouldn’t be needed. Instead, it’s just keeps getting worse,” Bryan Peterson, executive director of Bear Smart Durango, said. 

The nonprofit group came together following the intense drought of 2002 to address bear-human conflicts in the Southwest. Since then, they’ve witnessed several bad bear years – which are typically defined by the lack of natural food sources, like acorns and berries – including 2007 and 2012. This year, however, eclipses even those.

According to city officials, they’ve had 465 bear-related service calls so far this year. The last time they had a bad bear year in the city, they answered 225 calls. “This is an extreme year,” Steve Barkley, Durango code enforcement officer, said.

He’s not the only one hearing from concerned residents; the Durango City Council has also been getting emails from locals. In response to their concerns, City Council is holding a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tues., Sept. 5, at City Hall to propose an emergency ordinance.

The ordinance would take away the initial warning residents typically get if they fail to comply with the City’s regulations on trash and wildlife, which apply to both trash and recycling containers. Although issues with recycling are rare, residents could be ticketed for violations. The tickets would be $100 on the first offense and $200 for any additional offenses. This is double the current rates, which are $50 for the first offense and $100 for continued violations.

It’s expected the ordinance would last 60 days, giving the Council time to consider long-term changes.

The elimination of the warning, however, might make the most impact. According to Barkley, out of the 184 citations his department has given out this year, they’ve taken in just $1,000 in fines. Most were courtesy notices, he said.

Durango Mayor Dick White doesn’t think the Council will hear much opposition to the ordinance at the upcoming meeting. He called the bear issue this year extraordinary.

For him, the scary part is that bears are just entering hyperphagia – the time of year when they fatten up for hibernation, eating 20,000 calories a day and looking to add fat.

The stories of bear encounters this year have included bears getting behind the wheel of cars, checking out what’s in the refrigerator in Durango homes, climbing trees in the heart of downtown, strolling across North Main in the middle of the day, causing a lockdown at a local elementary school, and even baby bears getting trapped in an apartment building’s dumpster.

The home break-ins, though, are what really stand out to Bear Smart’s Peterson. He said it’s not just the increase in break-ins, but the location. When bears would break in to homes in years past, it would typically happen in the rural parts of La Plata County. This year, it’s happening a lot closer to town.

“I’ve lived here 43 years, and this is the worst I’ve seen it,” City Councilor Sweetie Marbury said.

This year, Mother Nature did not help the local bear population. They were hit with the double whammy of a dry spring and a late frost. With little to eat in the wild, many have headed for town.

According to wildlife experts, bears would prefer natural food sources. But if they know they can get calories they need from a trash can in town, that’s where they’ll go.

“They’re looking for food wherever they can find it,” Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said.

Bears aren’t just following their noses, either. They remember. If a bear has been able to secure the calories it needs from a trash can, dumpster, bird feeder or other human source, it will know it can return to it the next time there’s a bad food year – which is likely to happen again.

The lack of natural food sources, Lewandowski said, is something that happens in cycles. Just like it has in 2002, ’07, ’12 and ’17. But, it’s not the only thing affecting the bears’ behavior.

Researchers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently concluded a six-year study of the black bear population surrounding Durango. One of the things they learned was that because of encroaching human development and increasing temperatures, the length of time bears are in hibernation will likely get shorter. This will only make bear-human conflicts more common.

Something else they learned is how effective bear-resistant trash cans really are. According to the researchers, neighborhoods that had bear-resistant containers – which were provided as part of the six-year study – saw the number of bear-human conflicts cut in half.

The most important piece to the puzzle, though, was compliance. People had to use the containers and use them properly. Even a 60 percent compliance rate made a significant impact on bear-human conflicts, according to the study. This issue of compliance for both residential and commercial locations – and knowing what an effect it can have – is what’s behind the City Council’s proposed emergency ordinance.

Marbury said bear behavior won’t change, people are the ones who need to make the change. It’s a sentiment echoed by wildlife experts, Bear Smart and others.

“This year I’m getting the sense residents have had enough and they’re ready for change,” Peterson said.