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Animal Protection may be tapped to help curb human-bear conflicts

La Plata County commissioners seek to enforce rules on the books
La Plata County commissioners took the first step Tuesday in adopting an ordinance that will allow Animal Protection to enforce trash regulations aimed at curbing human-bear conflicts.

Residents and businesses in La Plata County may see stricter enforcement this summer of the county’s ordinance intended to reduce human-bear conflicts.

La Plata County commissioners on Tuesday took the first step in adopting an ordinance that will allow Animal Protection officers to enforce county regulations on unsecured trash that attracts wildlife.

“This has been a long time coming thanks to a lot of community effort and help on behalf of the (La Plata County) Humane Society,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.

In 2008, the county adopted regulations that require either the use of bear resistant/proof trash cans or restrict times and dates in which residents or businesses can leave unattended and unsecured trash outside.

If wildlife gets into trash, the property owner faces a $200 fine for the first violation, $300 for the second violation and $500 for subsequent violations. Offenders may forgo the fine, however, if they buy a proper trash can.

Since 2008, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has enforced the regulations. But no citations have been written since the ordinance went into effect, said Chris Burke, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

Burke said officers prefer to give property owners a warning and use the opportunity to teach people how to handle their trash. He also said it is not fair to fine property owners whose trash service doesn’t offer bear-resistant cans.

“We’re trying to educate more than anything,” Burke said.

But in recent years, human-bear conflicts have increased in La Plata County, which in part prompted the desire to give Animal Control the authority to enforce the county’s regulations.

Last year was by far the worst in recent memory for human-bear conflicts, a result of a poor natural food cycle coupled with food sources made available by humans.

Thirty-six bears were euthanized in 2017 in La Plata County for displaying unwanted behavior, such as rummaging through unsecured trash or breaking into cars looking for food left by owners.

Burke said it is welcome news that Animal Protection officers will help enforce the county’s trash regulations. He said the Sheriff’s Office responded to an average of three to five bear-related calls per week during the 2017 season.

Animal Protection has seven officers, but it is unclear how they will help enforce the regulations. Animal Protection Director Travis Woehrel did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Bryan Peterson of Bear Smart Durango said a $15,000 donation to the nonprofit in December allowed Animal Protection officers to enforce the trash ordinance on top of their normal duties. Peterson said Durango resident Todd Johnson made the donation after reading an article in The Durango Herald about the number of bears killed in 2017.

“It was just appalling to hear and see what’s happening to these magnificent animals as they try to survive,” Johnson said in a prepared statement. “I contacted the organization and, after some discussion, realized I could do something really meaningful to help (funding county bear and trash enforcement).”

Peterson said the $15,000 donation will be reserved in case Animal Protection officers need overtime pay related to the new duties. He said he wants Animal Protection officers to write citations rather than issue warnings.

“Little will happen without increased enforcement,” Peterson said. “Many Colorado communities have greatly reduced bear activity by cutting off trash. Communities that are lax with enforcement continue to struggle with issues.”

County attorney Kathleen Lyon said the ordinance also applies to property owners who have open, edible trash on their land.

Commissioners approved the first reading of the ordinance Tuesday, which is the first step in the process of formal adoption. La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff was not in attendance.

If ultimately approved, Animal Protection may receive the newfound authority in early May or late June, Lyon said.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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