Do Your Part to Keep Our Bears Wild… and Safe
Bears have exceptional noses. With this extraordinary sense of smell, bears are lured near people by the scent of human food: garbage, outdoor grills, ripened fruit, chickens, pet food, compost, and more. Bears reap huge caloric boosts from these “food rewards” and quickly seek out more. Last year, over 2,600 of the nearly 5,000 bear-related reports to Colorado Parks and Wildlife were of bears raiding unsecured trash cans and bird feeders, or other sorts of human foods.
Bears can become increasingly bold in their attempts to score even more of these foods, often resulting in damage to garages, chicken coops, vehicles, coolers, tents, campers, and homes. More than 350 of the reports last year were of bears breaking into human dwellings and structures.
Once bears pose a threat to humans or their property, options for wildlife officials are limited and often tragic. These “conflict” bears are hazed, relocated, or in some cases, humanely killed. The old saying “a fed bear is a dead bear” is still a truism. Last year, Colorado wildlife officials killed 120 bears in the state, the second most in the past five years; 89 bears were captured and relocated for unwanted behavior.
Now in its 18th year, the nonprofit Bear Smart Durango was formed with a singular mission: to reduce human-bear conflict in the greater Durango area by addressing the root cause—namely, the behavior of people. Soon, both La Plata County and the City of Durango adopted laws mandating that trash be kept from bears. Residential bear-resistant trash containers, which didn’t exist here in 2003, when Bear Smart Durango was launched, are now commonplace. Programs were developed to educate community members. A bear working group, composed of local stakeholders, was initiated and now meets quarterly.
Emphasis shifted to programs that directly reduced the amount of human foods available to bears. Bear-resistant containers are distributed to county residents to store livestock feed or for those lacking trash service. Over 70 residents have been assisted in installing electric fences to protect chickens, beehives, compost, fruit trees, and more from bears. Residents drop off bird feeders in exchange for kits to make hanging flower baskets to feed birds. Post-Halloween, residents donate pumpkins that feed farmers’ pigs instead of bears.
Over the past two years, the Good Food Collective has harvested and distributed over 70,000 pounds of fruit from trees in backyards and orchards in southwest Colorado, helping to save bears while bridging the gap between food waste and food insecurity in the region. A similar effort exists with Pine River Shares in Bayfield; their Community Fruit Harvest is now in its third year.
You may ask what you can do to help. Whether you’re visiting, sporting, or living here, taking some simple precautions will help greatly in making our area safer for both people and bears.
Here are a few simple things you can do to keep our bears safe:
- Never feed or approach wildlife.
- Keep your dog on a leash.
- If where you’re staying has bear-resistant trash cans, dumpsters, or food storage lockers, use them and keep them locked.
- If food storage lockers aren’t available where you’re camping, store coolers out of sight in vehicles, and keep vehicle windows rolled up and doors locked.
- Never keep food or anything with an odor in tents, and keep your camp area and picnic tables clean.
- Do not burn or bury trash.
- Leave your bird feeders at home.
- Immediately report any bear sightings or encounters to campground hosts or to Colorado Parks and Wildlife at 970-247-0855.
For those of us who live in Durango:
- It’s most critical to keep trash in a bear-resistant trash container or stored in a garage or shed (note that bears do break into structures).
- Remove bird feeders during bear season, as it’s nearly impossible to feed birds without also feeding bears.
- Keep doors or windows accessible to bears closed and locked, including garage and vehicle doors.
- Never leave food or anything with an odor in vehicles.
- If you have fruit trees on your property, remove fruit from the trees and the ground, or register your tree at org.
- Feed pets indoors and store livestock feed in bear-resistant containers.
- Empty grease traps from your outdoor grill.
- Electric fencing works very well to protect chickens, beehives, fruit trees, compost, and more.
Don’t allow bears to become accustomed to being around homes. Immediately report bear sightings and incidents to Colorado Parks and Wildlife or online at BearSmartDurango.org. Durango residents should report incidents of bears getting into trash by calling City Code Enforcement at 970-375-4930, while county residents can call Animal Protection at 970-385-2900.
We’re lucky to share our home with an abundance of wildlife, including bears. But in order to keep them wild and to keep everyone safe, we must all do our part to reduce the risk of human-bear conflict and of habituating these animals to human environments. Human-caused bear deaths are senseless and almost entirely avoidable. Let’s all work to prevent it from happening here.
Bryan Peterson is executive director of the nonprofit Bear Smart Durango, which offers real solutions that work to address human-bear conflict, helping keep both people and bears safe. For more information, visit BearSmartDurango.org or email [email protected].