Bears in the hood
'Bears of Durango' documentary debuts at local film festival
"Ouch! ... Son of a bitch,” Heather Johnson grunted as she struggled to squeeze down into the darkness. The ceiling was low and space was tight in the bear’s den, dug out from underneath a massive boulder.
Once inside, Johnson and her team of wildlife researchers worked to pull the sleeping black bear – who she had poked with a tranquilizer stick just minutes before – out into the light.
That was the introduction. The first scene in a trailer Salt Lake City filmmaker Dusty Hulet put together for his documentary, “Bears of Durango.”
His film tells the story of Johnson, a biologist and wildlife researcher for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and her team as they conducted a six-year study of the black bears living in and around the Animas Valley.
Johnson examined how encroaching development, climate change and other factors affect the bears’ habitat and way of life – all in an effort to figure out how people and bears can best share the landscape in La Plata County and beyond.
“We hear, ‘Don’t poke the bear,’” Hulet joked. “But these people are professional bear-pokers ... How does that work?” It was a question he thought needed to be asked, and a story he thought needed to be told.
Hulet and his crew followed the professional bear-pokers into dens around Durango during a two-day shoot in the spring of 2015. It was supposed to be the only footage for a short documentary.
But after two days, Hulet knew it wasn’t the end of the story. It was just the beginning.
After tagging along with Johnson and her team several times over the next couple of years, Hulet turned to the general public for help completing the film. He started a crowdfunding page on Kickstarter to raise funds needed for all the post-production work, like editing and sound. He also reached out to the people of Durango, asking them for home videos of bears in the back yard.
Whether the bears were found rummaging through dumpsters, toppling over trash cans or digging up the garden, Hulet received lots of submissions from locals. So many, in fact, that footage from Durango and La Plata County residents makes up 15 percent of the film’s 54 minutes. (Hulet is still taking home videos and locals can send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It isn’t just the videos making a difference, though. In the case of one local, Anne-Marie Ferretti, her involvement took “Bears of Durango” to the next level.
Since she was a child, Ferretti said she’s tried to rescue every animal she encountered. She calls herself a “huge animal lover” and an animal rights activist. So, it’s no surprise that when she first moved to Durango she wanted to
educate herself about the local wildlife – which is how she got involved with Bear Smart Durango, a local nonprofit founded in 2003 to address human/bear conflicts.
From there, Ferretti learned about Johnson’s research and the “Bears of Durango” project.
“Through the study and ‘Bears of Durango,’ I learned the bear mortality rate was one of the highest ever last year in Durango, and this motivated me to get involved on a deeper level,” she explained in an email.
In 2017, an early frost wiped out the black bears’ natural food sources, which primarily consist of acorns and chokecherries. This caused the bears to get calories wherever they could, including trash cans in town.
The increase in human/bear conflicts made everyone take notice, even forcing the Durango City Council to increase the penalty for violating the city’s rules for trash and the use of bear-resistant cans.
“There’s a lot of good work being done in our community to raise awareness of this issue,” Ferretti said. “It’s exciting to have the film document the research and get it out there to a wider audience.”
Ferretti, who splits her time between Durango and New York City, has now become an executive producer on the film. With her awareness of the issue in Durango and her connections back East, she was able to open doors for Hulet. He credits her with helping it grow from a short to a feature-length documentary.
“It’s just been a crazy awesome journey,” he said. “There’s no way I could have envisioned where we are today.”
The film makes its debut Fri., March 2, for two special screenings at 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. at the Durango Stadium 9 Theater at the Durango Mall.
The special event, which is part of the Durango Independent Film Festival, will be the first time audiences get a glimpse of the feature-length “Bears of Durango” film. The official premiere, however, won’t be until April at the 41st annual International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Mont. – the longest-running wildlife film festival in the country.
Hulet said the reason he wanted to come back to Durango to show the film was because it wouldn’t have happened without local support.
“It made sense to bring it back to the place that helped us bring it to life,” he added.
Along with the film, the event includes a presentation from Johnson, who will share the latest results of the bear study, followed by a Q&A.
Hulet said they’ll film the presentation and Q&A with the intent of adding the footage to the film for the Wildlife Film Festival. “This is just the beginning,” he said.