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La Plata County Animal Control given power to enforce bears-trash laws

County seeks to reduce human-bear conflicts
A bear making off with trash from an unlatched bear-proof dumpster in town.

Since La Plata County adopted trash laws in 2008 aimed at reducing human-bear conflicts, not a single ticket has been written despite a marked increase in bears breaking into garbage.

That is expected to change with Tuesday’s unanimous decision by La Plata County commissioners to allow La Plata County Animal Protection to enforce the ordinance.

“This is something that’s come to us consistently over the past few years as a problem for neighborhoods,” said La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff.

In 2008, La Plata County adopted regulations that require: either the use of bear resistant/proof trash cans; or restricts times and dates in which residents or businesses can leave out unattended and unsecured trash.

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. The fine may be dropped, however, if the resident buys a bear-resistant trash can.

But after a full decade, not a single ticket has been written – and not for lack of conflict.

In 2017, for instance, there were 1,486 bear sightings and incidents reported by residents in La Plata County. A total of 977 of the reports were trash-related. And 96 percent of the 977 reports were bears getting into trash.

But La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for enforcing the county ordinance, has elected not to write tickets to residents, instead preferring to issue warnings.

It’s unclear why the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t issued a single ticket in 10 years.

Multiple calls to Sheriff Sean Smith on Monday and Tuesday were not returned. The ordinance went into effect while previous Sheriff Duke Schirard was in office; Smith was elected in 2014.

Frustrated by the lack of enforcement, Bryan Peterson, executive director of Bear Smart Durango, sought to secure funding to create a full-time, seasonal position that would be dedicated to enforcing the trash laws.

In December, a Durango resident donated $15,000 to Bear Smart Durango for that very purpose after reading an article in The Durango Herald about the number of bears killed in 2017 because they displayed unwanted behavior.

Thirty-six bears were euthanized in 2017 in the county for rummaging through unsecured trash, breaking into cars looking for food left by owners or eating livestock, among other reasons.

Over the past few months, discussions between county staff and elected officials, the Sheriff’s Office, Bear Smart Durango and the La Plata County Humane Society determined it would be best to allow Animal Protection to take the lead.

The agreement unanimously approved Tuesday does not change the amount the county is already contracted with Animal Protection – about $177,000 – for services it provides.

However, it does allow Animal Protection to access Bear Smart Durango’s $15,000 pledge if the department incurs expenses outside its operating budget as a result of enforcing the trash laws.

Peterson expects that Animal Protection will write tickets rather than issue warnings.

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

Animal Protection and its seven officers are expected to formally receive the newfound authority June 15.

Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said it is not unusual for the county to outsource duties, evidenced by entities like San Juan Basin Public Health performing public health tasks, and even Animal Protection enforcing the relatively new ordinance about barking dogs.

Already, bears are active in La Plata County.

Bear Smart Durango alone has received 20 reports of bear incidents since March, Peterson said. Six of those reports were of bears accessing trash, and four were bears getting into the same trash cans that had been ransacked last year.

A mapping of last year’s bear sightings and incidents. GIS-mapping was donated by Ecosphere Environmental Services.
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