Trash talk
Bear-resistant cans helping to reduce conflicts across the area

Trash talk

A black bear, pictured above, has been spotted several times in the past two weeks near a grove of Gamble oaks off Florida Road, munching on some acorns. He's not the only one wandering the area. According to Code Enforcement Officer Steve Barkley, a bear hanging out around Jenkins Ranch and Florida roads has actually figured out how to get into the city's larger, 4-yard bins, which can hold more than 800 gallons of trash. The bear has learned how to tip it over and tuck its paws inside in order to pull out the calorie-rich trash./Photo by Ken Rice

Tracy Chamberlin - 08/29/2019

What’s working in the Southwest is nothing short of trashy. Over the past few years, the City of Durango has been swapping out its old trash cans for ones with wildlife-resistant locks, and it’s making a big impact.

But, for some locals there’s more that can be done.

Bearing down

As summer wanes and fall approaches, it’s time for the local bear population to start fattening up for the long winter’s nap. They become determined to devour the 20,000 calories they need each day, and the best way to do that is by following their noses.

That’s why smell is the focus for Erin Bohm, the new educational outreach coordinator for Bear Smart Durango.

When Bohm is making presentations to scout troops or in classrooms, she said she keeps the message simple and the spotlight on the nose. Bear attractants are all things that smell, she explained, like grease, dumpsters, dog food, bird seed and trash. All bears do is follow the scent to their next meal.

“It’s all about the nose,” she added.

Trash is by far the top attractant, so it’s been the goal for groups like Bear Smart to remind residents to lock up their trash bins, bring in the bird feeders or put up electric fencing around chicken coops.

What works

The black bear population in Southwest Colorado is more than 3,000, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

This healthy population is one of the reasons Durango was chosen in 2011 to be the site of a six-year bear study run by Parks and Wildlife researchers. The data from that study revealed things about the bears’ life span, habits, population and more – including how to reduce human-bear conflicts.

Researchers learned that simply using bear-resistant trash cans could cut the number of conflicts in half.

In the years that followed the study’s release, city officials invested in wildlife-resistant trash cans for a majority of neighborhoods and even swapped out cans used during the study for new ones with automatic locking lids.

Code Enforcement Officer Steve Barkley said the number of violations have dropped dramatically since the new cans were issued.

Instead of strewn trash across alleyways, there’s only a handful of cans knocked over. The only time the bears get into the new cans is when they’ve been overfilled, he added.

“We’re definitely seeing less violations for scattered trash,” Barkley said.

And, the news is spreading.

The Town of Bayfield is considering a change to wildlife-resistant trash cans. With its current contract with the waste collection service WCA expiring, Bayfield Town Manager Chris La May said the town decided to look into the cost of wildlife-resistant cans.

Currently residents are paying $11.15 a month for trash collection Switching over to wildlife-resistant trash cans would likely increase the monthly rate by $1.50, according to La May.

The final decision will be up to the Town Council, and La May plans to give them the details next week. If it’s approved, it will be a first for Bayfield.

More to be done

Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, agrees the wildlife-resistant trash bins can work, and he’s noticed the impact the new cans are making in Durango.

“The city’s bear-resistant trash containers really seem to be doing a good job,” he added.

So far this year, Parks and Wildlife has not had to euthanize a single bear within the city limits due to aggressive behavior. In the two years prior, four bears have been euthanized – three in 2018, a mother and her two cubs who broke into a Durango home, and one in 2017.

“We don’t want bears that are getting too comfortable because they can hurt people,” Lewandowski explained.

Once a bear shows that it is comfortable around people, like breaking into homes or cars, it’s likely to become aggressive. Lewandowski said wildlife officials would rather not put down any bear, but they have to consider human health and safety.

Bear mortality is something the Durango City Council takes into account when making policy decisions. The Council is currently considering whether or not to hire an additional code enforcement officer to help address bear-in-trash violations, as well as other needs. Durango Mayor Melissa Youssef said the Council will consider the data, like bear mortality, budget constraints and other department needs before making a decision in the coming weeks.

Bear Smart’s Bohm said people sometimes need to experience consequences, whether its tickets, fines or warnings from enforcement officers. “Actual consequences speak the loudest,” she added.

Bryan Peterson, executive director for Bear Smart Durango, said he supports adding an enforcement officer.

“We applaud the city and all the cans they’re using, but you still need a mechanism that requires people to use them right, otherwise they’re just real expensive trash cans,” he added. “And, an enforcement officer would do that.”

Trash talk

The bear pictured above was shot near Vallecito Lake in July. The bear had been trapped and relocated near Pagosa Springs after breaking into unsecured coolers, but returned to the Vallecito area just a few weeks later./ Photo by Sarah Ros