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Death toll for bears hits record numbers in Southwest Colorado

Bad natural food year, human attractants spell doom for bruins

A record number of bears were euthanized this year in La Plata County – partly the result of a poor natural food cycle and partly the result of food sources made available by humans.

“It’s definitely been a tough year,” said Matt Thorpe, Durango-based wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “None of us got into this job to hurt bears, but public safety obviously comes first.”

In 2017, a total of 60 bears were euthanized – 40 by CPW, 19 by landowners and one by Wildlife Services – across a region CPW calls Area 15, which extends from Pagosa Springs to the Utah border, and from the New Mexico border north to Silverton.

Of that total, 36 bears were located in La Plata County.

For reference, the last year of food failure in 2012 resulted in 20 bears having to be euthanized in all of Area 15. In 2007, another bad food year for bears, 17 bears were killed.

“This was a bad bear year for everybody, certainly across the Western Slope,” Thorpe said.

The situation beame alarming in June, when a late frost wiped out fall food sources bears rely upon heavily, namely acorns and berries. Then, dry conditions in early summer impacted other food sources, such as flowers, forbs and grasses.

Those dire circumstances drew a record number of bears into town, looking for easily accessible food sources left by people, such as trash, bird feeders and domestic livestock.

According to CPW, 11 bears were put down for going after domestic chickens; seven were killed for rummaging through trash; six were killed for attacking other domestic livestock, such as pigs and goats; and four were killed for getting into livestock feed.

Bryan Peterson of Bear Smart Durango said although poor natural food conditions were a major reason for so many human-bear conflicts, food sources created by humans are just as responsible.

“These numbers clearly show the need to do more,” he said of the deaths.

That residents who live in Southwest Colorado continue to ignore best practices for living in bear country is an unending source of frustration for wildlife managers, to the point where it’s starting to sound like a broken record.

“No one says they don’t care about bears, but most people are unwilling to do seemingly small things that would help prevent those conflicts,” Thorpe said. “Perhaps we as an agency have not been effective getting that message across.”

In September, the city of Durango enacted an emergency ordinance, levying stiffer fines for residents if a bear got into their trash. Warmer temperatures in November prompted the city to extend the ordinance to mid-January.

As a result, residents were subject to a $100 fine for the first violation, and $200 for subsequent violations. A courtesy warning was eliminated as part of the emergency ordinance.

But even after the emergency ordinance went into effect, about 25 people were fined. Throughout the bear season, the city issued 230 violations, of which 44 resulted in fines amounting to $3,500, code enforcement officer Steve Barkley said.

Barkley said the department received 685 bear-related service calls this year, more than triple the amount of the last bad food year in 2012, when code enforcement responded to 225 service calls.

In all, code enforcement issued 886 warnings for violations of the city’s bear safety codes, which mainly dealt with the proper securing of trash, Barkley said.

With about 5,000 residential customers, City Operations Director Levi Lloyd estimated that 44 percent have bear-resistant cans. In an effort to prevent human-bear conflicts, the city, as well as CPW, have given out bear-resistant trash cans.

Lloyd said the city handed out 475 bear-resistant trash cans to residents this year, and another 182 to businesses. The city also plans to distribute 600 more bear-resistant trash cans in 2018.

But if your neighbor doesn’t have a bear-resistant can, it does little good in keeping the animals out of the area, Peterson said. And, having no regulations for businesses in Durango to secure trash cans has also irked many residents.

“Obviously, it would be more effective bear-proofing everything, including commercial trash,” Peterson said.

Many residents have pushed the city of Durango to adopt stricter codes when it comes to bear safety, namely requiring the use of bear-resistant cans, hiring a part-time officer to enforce wildlife codes, and allowing electric fencing in town, which is currently banned.

Durango Mayor Dick White said the city will convene in January to discuss many of the bear issues in town and possible solutions. Stricter guidelines, he said, could be a result of those conversations.

However, the issue doesn’t lie solely within city limits. This year, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office responded to 91 bear calls, a number of which involved bears breaking into vehicles looking for food left by owners.

According to CPW’s data, 25 bears were euthanized in Durango city limits. That means 11 bears were killed in the county, where regulations can be more difficult to enforce.

In 2008, La Plata County adopted a “Bear-Resistant Trash Container Ordinance” that either requires the use of wildlife-proof trash containers or restricts the times and days trash may be left outside.

If wildlife gets into a county residents’ trash, they face a $200 fine for the first violation, $300 for the second violation and $500 for subsequent violations. Though, residents may forgo the fine if they use the money to buy a proper can.

However, Chris Burke, spokesman for La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said no citations were written this year. In fact, Burke said no citations were written since the ordinance was passed in 2008.

The Sheriff’s Office, he said, prefers to write residents a warning with the hope they will take it upon themselves to make corrective actions. And, because not all trash services that operate in the county offer bear-resistant cans, he said it’s not fair to residents to levy fines.

“We’re trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the homeowners,” Burke said. “Our hope is they get a bear container and we’re not seeing trash left all over the place.”

Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said the county has no immediate actions planned in light of the most-recent bad bear season.

However, the county has begun early conversations on how it may get more bear-resistant trash cans to residents, as well as determining the feasibility of La Plata County Animal Control helping enforce regulations.

CPW’s Thorpe said despite the number of bears killed this year, the area still boasts a robust bear population. Bear estimates are tricky to pin down, but CPW says there’s anywhere from 400 to 1,700 bears east of the Animas River to Wolf Creek Pass, and 800 to 1,400 bears west of the Animas River to the Utah border.

“There are still going to be plenty of bears in the woods next year,” Thorpe said. “Hopefully, the conditions will be better, and we won’t be seeing them in town all the time.”

Wildlife officials are hopeful local governments and residents finally get the message, and at least do their part to reduce conflicts.

“Other Colorado communities have addressed this far better and have far less conflict than we,” Peterson said. “This is unacceptable, and should be to the greater community.”

A six-year study on human-bear conflicts that concentrated on Durango and the surrounding area concluded the issue isn’t going anywhere.

If population estimates are true, La Plata County is expected to hit 62,000 residents by 2020, and nearly 75,000 by 2030. And a state report found human-bear conflicts are growing 4 percent a year, twice as fast as the state’s population.

“There have always been bear issues in Durango; we just saw a lot more this year because there was so little natural food,” Thorpe said. “But even in really tough years, some people still don’t get the message. I don’t know what the reason is, but they don’t.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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