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Rain may help curb human-bear conflicts

After quiet year, activity increases as animals prepare for hibernation
Bryan Peterson, executive director of Bear Smart Durango, installs an electric fence as Nicole Baillis, left, and Carol Tyrrell run wire around beehives on a property south of Durango. This year, Bear Smart Durango has installed 14 electric fences, with another nine in the works.

Bear activity in La Plata County has been quiet so far this year, but weather conditions over the next couple weeks will play a major role in whether enough food is available during the animals’ feeding frenzy before hibernation.

Adrian Archuleta, Colorado Parks and Wildlife assistant area wildlife manager, said reports of human-bear conflicts remained relatively low as bears emerged from their dens this spring.

But in the past few weeks, bear sightings and reports of the animals breaking into trash, cars and livestock pens have increased. Of the 118 incidents reported in La Plata County to CPW to date, Archuleta said 51 occurred in July.

“It’s definitely picked up the last couple weeks,” he said. “When bears start scrounging, we usually see an uptick in calls.”

Steve Barkley, the city of Durango’s code enforcement officer, echoed the sentiment that bear activity has been low. So far, he has issued only two fines to residents for violating the city’s secure trash can ordinance, and only a couple of notices have been written to residents to repair their trash cans.

“Most of the activity we’re seeing is in the northwest section of town, on the west side of 32nd Street,” Barkley said. “But other than that, it’s been very quiet so far, knock on wood.”

In La Plata County this year, CPW has euthanized eight bears, and landowners have killed four bears after conflicts with livestock. Archuleta did not have specific details about the incidents, but he said wildlife managers are forced to put down bears after they run into trouble multiple times.

While local jurisdictions have taken measures to limit bears’ access to trash, residents in La Plata County have also made efforts to reduce human-bear conflicts, such as installing electric fences to protect chicken coops, beehives and fruit trees.

CPW has also performed four relocations: a sow with cubs, two cubs moved to a rehab facility in Del Norte and a bear burned in the East Canyon Fire earlier this summer.

“It just hasn’t been a bad year,” Archuleta said. “But we’ll see what comes in the next couple months.”

Bryan Peterson with Bear Smart Durango said a late frost in early summer wiped out some natural foods for bears. Then, a prolonged period of dry weather exacerbated the availability of food in the forest.

“July is already a rough time for bears,” he said. “They’re in between grasses and vegetation from the spring and the berries and acorns coming on in the late summer and fall.”

But recent rains, Peterson said, hopefully will replenish some foods.

“They are about to start gorging,” he said. “So it could possibly get bad in the next few weeks, depending on the effect of rain on natural foods.”

CPW’s Archuleta also said moisture may be the saving grace for bears this year.

“The situation right now is not great, but it’s not grim,” he said. “It’s just a little early to tell.”

Efforts over the past few years have ramped up to try to reduce human-bear conflicts.

The city of Durango, for instance, tightened its requirement for residents to have bear-resistant trash cans. The Bayfield Town Board voted unanimously last year to increase monthly trash rates to provide bear-resistant trash cans for residents.

In 2018, La Plata County gave Animal Protection authority to enforce the county’s trash laws in the hopes of giving the ordinance more teeth.

Issues between bears and residents have steadily increased over the years in La Plata County, with the severity depending on the natural food year and how well people take measures to secure food sources.

Along with measures like trash laws, there have been more holistic approaches as well.

More than ever, residents around La Plata County have taken part in Bear Smart Durango’s incentive program that helps landowners pay for and construct electric fencing around chicken coops, beehives, fruit trees, compost and small livestock.

Since the program was launched about five years ago, Bear Smart Durango has helped install about 12 electric fences a year. This year, however, 14 electric fences have already been installed, with another nine in the works.

Since Bear Smart Durango started helping residents build electric fences about five years ago, the group has installed about 12 a year. This year, however, 14 electric fences have already been installed, and nine more are in the works.

Peterson added it has been a great year for fruit tree production throughout the region. As a result, Bear Smart Durango is kicking off an effort to install temporary electric fences around specific fruit trees.

Residents who have fruit trees available for harvest can list their properties here: https://www.goodfoodcollective.org/fruit-trees.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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