The city of Durango is planning to spend $175,000 next year to purchase 600 bear-resistant trash cans for city residents, a step toward making the city less attractive to hungry bears and reducing human-bear conflict.
Bear-resistant garbage cans are one of the most effective ways to reduce human-bear conflict, said Matt Thorpe, area wildlife manager with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office in Durango. While it’s unlikely there will be a day when there are no human-bear conflicts in Durango – the bears aren’t going anywhere – the proliferation of bear-resistant garbage cans is the most cost-effective way to reduce negative interactions between bears and humans, Thorpe said.
The city offers bear-resistant garbage cans to residents for a $100 delivery fee and a recurring $4-per-month fee for 4½ years, a fee that is meant to reimburse the city for its investment. The new cans are planned for the Crestview neighborhood.
“It’s basically an interest-free loan for a bear can for 4½ years,” said Levi Lloyd, director of city operations.
And if a bear gets into a garbage can, that voluntary act of purchasing a bear-proof garbage can becomes mandatory, Lloyd said.
That investment is worth the cost, according to a five-year study by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office focused on the impacts of bear-resistant garbage cans when it comes to human-bear conflict. More than 1,000 bear-resistant garbage cans were deployed in Durango between 2011 and 2016 to determine the effectiveness of the cans in reducing human-bear conflicts.
The study found that after bear-resistant garbage cans were deployed in an area, that location saw 60 percent fewer trash-related bear conflicts when compared with a control area that did not have bear-proof cans. The results show that bears weigh the perceived benefits of easy access to food against the risk associated with human activity, meaning that there is a point when the bears will recognize the risk outweighs the potential benefit.
The study found a non-linear trend in trash-related bear conflicts in communities that had bear-resistant garbage cans: “The greatest reductions in conflicts occurred as compliance increased to approximately 60 percent, and then tailed-off,” according to the study. That means that just 60 percent of a community needs to have bear-resistant garbage cans to have the most effective impact on reducing human-bear conflicts, according to the study.
This year is a testament to that fact. In March, the city distributed 600 bear-resistant garbage cans to homes south of Seventh Street between East Second Avenue and East Ninth Avenue. In 2017, the Code Enforcement Department had more than 680 bear-related calls. This year, it had only about 20.
“2017 literally ran us ragged; it was horrendous,” said Steve Barkley, code enforcement officer. “This year is the exact opposite.”
But the bear-resistant cans aren’t the only reason for decreased bear activity in the city, said Bryan Peterson, executive director of Bear Smart Durango. It was a good natural food year for the bears this year, Peterson said. And about 25 bears were killed last year after human conflict, something the animals remember from season to season, he said.
Thorpe said bears are intelligent animals, and they know when a bear goes into an area and doesn’t return, the area may not be safe.
“A lot of people think conflict is driven by the bear population, but it all comes down to the availability of human food and the abundance of natural food,” Peterson said. “Resolving human-bear conflict is all about removing human food attractants. There are other factors, but that’s the one thing we can control.”
But even bear-resistant cans are only as effective as people make them, Peterson said. Bear Smart Durango is working with a group of Fort Lewis College students to evaluate whether people are using the bear-resistant cans properly; a study has already found that only about half of the garbage cans are being properly locked, Peterson said.
“If you want to put an end to that (bear-human conflict), you have to patrol to make sure people are using their bear cans appropriately,” he said.
Barkley said that this year, residents in Durango have been good about locking their bear-resistant cans, something that is easy to do with the city’s automatic locking cans. There are manual locking cans out there – those that must be locked with a cable – and those are the cans the city has the most trouble with.
The city issued two or three citations to residents for failing to lock their cans, Barkley said. And even if residents have a bear-proof can, they can still be cited if a bear gets into a garbage. Those citations run $100 a pop.
To avoid getting a citation for an unsecured garbage can, Barkley suggested making sure the cable cans are locked when they are not out for pickup. For automatic locking cans, residents should make sure the can is not overfilled because that can jam the locking mechanism.
Bears are still out foraging for food, so if one gets into trash, residents can call Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Durango office at 247-0855.