Garage ownership has no bearing on ursine study

We live at the north end of town where bears dine when times are tough. Our subdivision recently received bear-proof trash cans as part of a study to see if this will reduce human-bear problems in the city. However, everyone in our subdivision has a garage where old non-bear-proof cans were stored. To make it more interesting, some neighbors let their chickens roam loose during the day. What does the city hope to learn from this? Is there any other city in the world that conducts such interesting experiments? Signed, Really, Really Confused

The city of Durango conducts a variety of experiments. For instance, it’s currently trying to determine if there’s a link between plastic bags and mental health.

Early results indicate that plastic bags drive people crazy when anyone suggests charging a dime for their use.

You might recall another famous experiment in which the city attempted to determine just how many people would attend a bicycle race in August.

Results of that study are still pending, and the data has not been subject to peer review.

And now, there’s an upcoming $136,000 horticultural inquiry that will analyze the response of lawns to seasonal applications of kelp and molasses.

This comes on top of ongoing research to determine just how many orange envelopes can be distributed on windshields in a single day.

So naturally, the city is rather busy and has no time to study bruin behavior.

But Colorado Parks and Wildlife does. And biologists at the state agency are the ones doing a major five-year examination of human-bear conflicts.

“The goals of the study are to develop a better understanding of how bear populations use urban areas, determine how to reduce bear-human conflicts and to improve techniques for estimating bear numbers and population trends,” the agency wrote in its news release announcing the study in May 2011.

One of the main issues, according to lead researcher Heather Johnson, is to document what effect waste-management practices have on bear behavior.

In other words, if people don’t make their garbage available to bears, will this stop the bears from coming into town. “We all know bears follow their noses,” Heather said.

That makes sense, and the study will test that thesis. But there’s a heck of a lot more to the study, she points out.

For instance, researchers are putting GPS collars on bears to track their movement and gathering hair samples to get a DNA profile of individual bears.

Heather even spent the last couple of weeks crawling inside bear dens, examining bears that are getting ready to emerge from hibernation.

If we do a better job with our trash and the bears stay away, where do they go? These and other questions hope to be answered in the next three years.

It might seem redundant to give bear-proof cans to homes that have garages. But in order for the study to be valid, there needs to be consistency.

“Our study is not about one or two households,” Heather said. “We’re looking at multiple neighborhoods and the big picture of bear-human conflicts.”

Also, people who have a garage might not store their trash can inside.

It’s important stuff. The data will be the basis of sound wildlife management and provide facts on which ordinances and policies are based.

Imagine that. Rules based on facts and science instead of on emotion and guesswork. What an unusual concept in this day and age.

And speaking of unusual, there’s an ironic twist to Durango’s landmark bear study.

A vital element is how trash is moved from the house to the curb. Therefore, this might be the only time in history that scientifically valid research is based on garbage in/garbage out.

Email questions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. You can request anonymity if you’re smarter than the average bear.

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