As black bears start emerging from hibernation, La Plata County residents should be aware that an ordinance barely 3 days old calls for at least a $200 fine if they don't secure their garbage containers from marauding wildlife.
"People don't have to buy a special container, but if they don't, they can't set out their trash before 6 a.m. on collection day and the container must be retrieved by 9 p.m.," said Dave Wegner, chairman of the county's Living with Wildlife Advisory Board.
The new ordinance, which went into effect Wednesday, applies to all wildlife but is geared toward bears. The best protection, said Wegner, is a bear-proof garbage container, which is available from the three scavenger companies that serve the county.
"Most people manage their trash, but it's the problem children we're trying to educate," he said.
A new round of educational efforts has begun through newspaper ads and radio spots, Wegner said.
Information about the program also is available online at www.co.laplata.co.us/lwab/lwab.html.
The bear problem became unbearable in 2007 when there were 1,271 recorded incidents involving bears and humans. A late frost that year wiped out the natural food - chokecherries, berries and acorns - that bears feed on to prepare for their winter snooze. The list of incidents included assaults on garbage cans and home and backyard invasions by ursines in search of food.
There were only 228 recorded incidents for La Plata County in 2008, but the number is low because three months of data were lost, said Bryan Peterson, director and staff of Bear Smart Durango.
Peterson teaches the public how to coexist with wildlife and advocates against feeding bears and for making bear-proof garbage containers a must.
He said 2008's numbers also may reflect the abundance of natural food for the bears and that some of the problem bears may have died or been killed. Also, "people are beginning to understand the issue," he said.
Garbage cans aren't the only target of bears. They love bird feeders, barbecue grills and, in some cases, in-the-house refrigerators.
While it isn't mandatory that residents of unincorporated areas buy a bear-proof garbage container, the bite incorporated in the new ordinance - fines start at $200 - could make them wish they had. There is still some leeway, however. The first violation, which occurs when a wild animal strews garbage in search of a meal, draws a warning and a second violation brings a citation.
The violator can avoid paying the fine by acquiring a bear-proof container, available from Phoenix Recycling, Waste Management or Transit Waste. They cost from $200 to $250.
Under a city of Durango policy approved in September 2007, residents aren't penalized the first time a bear or other animal gets into their garbage container. A second incident requires residents to rent a bear-resistant container for an additional $6 a month for four years or go to court, where they run the risk of a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.
La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle has high hopes for the county's new trash ordinance.
"It was the result of community input and those who take care of our trash," Riddle said.
"It's a good way to mitigate the interaction between people and wildlife that we've had in the past. I'm expecting the best from the ordinance."