Bears are awake, ready for warm weather – are you?

Courtesy of Melissa Lea Photography

This bear was seen Friday in a trailer near Vallecito Reservoir eating trash. A close look shows the bear has spaghetti sauce on its face.

The Navajo have a saying: “Shash nihaa néíndzá.” Or, in English, “Bear, you came back to us.”

Closer to home, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe welcomes bears back from winter hibernation with an annual spring celebration – the Bear Dance. With origins tracing back to the 15th century, this ceremonial dance celebrates the return of black bears to begin a season anew – and with them, the rebirth of all new life after a dormant winter.

Not everyone, of course, shares equal enthusiasm for the re-emergence of bears. To many residents in our area, bears being around means having to clean up trash strewn by bears or assuming the added expense of bear-resistant trash containers, damaged fruit trees, not being able to feed birds, worrying about a bear tearing into their garage, or worse, a bear invading their home.

It’s likely the last thing that anyone who has ever had an unfortunate or potentially dangerous incident with a bear at their home wants to hear, but the majority of these interactions are, for the most part, self-inflicted and avoidable. In nearly every instance, there’s a reason a bear is around your home, neighborhood or subdivision. It’s been finding people food – livestock grain, birdseed and sugar water, dog food, fruit, chickens, compost and trash – accessible to them as if by invitation.

Animals quickly associate rewards and behavior. My dog showing up as I cut up elk meat comes as no big surprise, as he’s been rewarded with scraps in the past. Bears possess much higher intelligence than dogs. Something to consider as you, or your neighbors, in essence, train a bear to show up at people’s doorsteps.

Once bears locate, and are rewarded with, human foods, they will return until those food sources are cut off or until the bear is dealt with lethally. A bear receiving food rewards is almost certain to come into conflict with people sooner or later, and very little can be done to retrain bears in avoiding human foods and homes.

Although it appeases residents, capturing and removing bears is notoriously ineffective. Rubber bullets and scare devices are inconsistent, expensive and time-consuming. Besides, shifting the responsibility of dealing with problematic bears onto others is, in a nutshell, irresponsible.

The most effective way to preserve the welfare of bears – and the safety of residents – is preventing bears from ever obtaining human foods in the first place. Remove the food and you’ll remove the bear. It’s that simple – and that difficult.

Wake-Up Social

As a reminder that bears are back among us, Bear Smart Durango will be hosting a Spring Bear Wake-Up Social, a fun and educational community event geared toward informing residents about preventing human and bear interactions. This will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. May 10 at the Durango Discovery Museum and will feature kids’ activities; live music; electric fencing; bear-resistant containers; bear spray demonstrations; a 6 p.m. slideshow talk by Laura Pritchett, author of Great Colorado Bear Stories; and an open mic for bear stories.

Bp@frontier.net. Bryan Peterson is director of Bear Smart Durango, formed in 2003 to educate residents about safely and respectfully coexisting with bears and to advocate for policy changes. For more information, visit www.bearsmartdurango.org.

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