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For bears, ‘it’s 20/20 time’

Working group establishes ursine plan
A bear took advantage of a trash can on West Second Avenue in 2010. People who work to deal with bear issues say garbage is one of the main reasons for bear problems in Durango.

At the Bear Working Group Forum on Wednesday, participants decided an important step in decreasing bear deaths is changing how we talk about human-bear contacts, pointing to the way Southern Ute Wildlife Management works.

“The Utes have a strong relationship with bears,” said Aran Johnson, who works at the agency. “If you ask the right person, they came from bears. Their Bear Dance is one of the oldest still performed, recorded back to the 1400s.”

So the agency’s contact with bears is basically hands-off, he said, although this year they’ve gotten 10 calls, when many years they don’t receive any.

“We balance the need for public safety, the welfare of the bear and respect for Ute culture,” Johnson said. “We struggle with the same things everyone else does in removing the attractant, which is usually trash, but we don’t have a strike policy, and we don’t tag bears.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife generally tags bears that have broken into vehicles or homes because they’ve become too adapted to human food sources. The two-strike policy means those bears are euthanized.

The Southern Ute agency releases the bears away from the human population, Johnson said, where they won’t be tempted to stray back.

“A cultural leader will come and talk to the bear, bless the bear,” he said. “Then we take it to the farthest point of the reservation, where it won’t go into someone else’s backyard, and release it.”

Steve McClung, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said many bears might not reach the tagging stage if they were called in earlier, perhaps the first time they’re in someone’s trash or in a fruit tree. That’s particularly a problem out in the unincorporated areas of La Plata County, where reports are rare. Working with the rural culture of county residents to get them to call in situations with bears is one of its goals, the working group decided.

Bryan Peterson, one of the founders of Bear Smart Durango, said that in 2012, there were 916 calls about bears in trash in La Plata County, and 844 came from the city of Durango.

Agencies received a total of 1,545 calls about bear incidents in 2012.

Ann Bond, another founder of Bear Smart, said changing words could change thinking.

“Looking out for the welfare of the bear is a powerful concept in today’s world,” she said. “We’ve been talking more about punitive ideas or deterrents, but if having to clean up your trash isn’t a deterrent, I don’t know what is.”

Peterson read the bear reports from the week of Aug. 23 to 30, with the bulk stated as “Bear got into trash.”

Maybe a new paradigm is in order, moderator Marsha Porter-Norton said.

“Maybe the report should be ‘Human left out trash, so a bear got into it,’” she said.

Other ideas the working group will pursue include creating Bear Smart ambassadors for neighborhoods and subdivisions, working with waste management companies to make bear-proof garbage cans available to all residents in La Plata County, and working with homeowners associations to create bylaws and enforcement for reducing bear attractants.

In the meantime, the countdown for fall eating has begun.

“Happy hyperfasia,” McClung said, “In this period before denning, bears have one thing on their mind – eating. It’s 20/20 time, when they need to consume 20,000 calories every 20 hours.”


This story has been changed to clarify that out of 916 calls about bears in trash, 844 calls came from the city of Durango. Agencies received a total of 1,545 calls about bear incidents in 2012.

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