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Education and enforcement are key to what is really a human, rather than bear, problem

The clever motto of the local fruit gleaning program says, “No apple left behind.” In its third year in Durango, fruit gleaning is an age-old practice to collect crops from farmers’ fields left over after, or not economically viable for, a commercial harvest.

Durango’s version, an electronic bulletin board found online at bearsmartdurango.org, was designed to connect residents with fruit trees bearing (excess) fruit with those that desire it, to feed people not bears. It was established three years ago by a partnership of Bear Smart Durango, Healthy Community Food Systems, Fort Lewis College Environmental Center and the Colorado State University La Plata County Extension Office.

Because of a healthy natural food cycle this summer, we have seen far fewer human-bear conflicts (280 in 2015 dropped to 50 in 2016). To keep that number on the decline, it is human behavior, not bears, which must change. No one likes to hear of bears and other wildlife being put down for doing what they do naturally, feeding in the wild, especially this time of year as they prepare for winter. Yet, we must do more to address the reasons for, rather than, the nuisance of bears themselves.

Wildlife experts agree that unsecured household trash is the No. 1 attractant and reason human-bear conflicts occur. Fruit trees, bird feeders, chickens and, sadly it seems, miniature horses round out the list. It is why in 2011 Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in cooperation with the city of Durango, initiated a study to find solutions to bear exploitation of urban environments. It is also why resident education, local ordinances and enforcement are all equally important. In Durango, we have all three.

Although study findings will not be available until early 2017, there are some early results. Of the 1,860 wildlife-proof containers in use in the city, 1,100 of which CPW provided for free to residents, currently only 37 percent of households are using them.

CPW has been monitoring resident compliance with the city’s bear ordinance in its two study areas, north Durango west of Main Avenue and in south Durango east of Main, and found that only 60 percent of residents in the north study area and 35 percent in the south are in compliance. That means that cans have been found outside unsecured and unlatched before 6 a.m. the day of trash pick-up, effectively attracting bears to town, increasing the potential for human-bear conflict and increasing bear mortality rates as they cross roads and travel through neighborhoods in search of easy sources of food.

Bear Smart Durango has been doing its part and, for the most part, so has the city. Sustainability program staff are working on FLC student education in partnership with the Environmental Center, wildlife-resistant containers are available for an additional $4 per month for four years (visit durangogov.org or call 375-5004) and two enforcement staff with varied responsibilities respond to reports of bear-strewn trash (call 375-4930).

It is residents and business owners, however, that could be doing more to reduce access to all bear attractants. Because Durango is a progressive community, when Bear Smart started in 2003, its founders thought they would be done and gone in 10 years. That has not transpired. The solution to human-bear conflicts must come from people changing their behavior and the city of Durango being proactive to ensure we do.

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