The matter of backyard hens was bandied around again Thursday but raised few hackles at a poorly attended public forum at the Durango Community Recreation Center, where a clutch of experts were given free range to help the city decide whether it would be hatching a new ordinance or dropping the issue.
About 10 people unconnected to local government or the news media attended the meeting, and only one, resident Don Bushnell, sounded as though he opposed the idea.
Bushnell remembered a neighbor in Durango in the 1970s who kept about 20 hens on his lot and made life difficult for Bushnell with offensive odors and frequent visits from skunks and other chicken-flesh aficionados.
The panel consisted of local chicken farmer Kasey Chadborn, environmental health director at the San Juan Basin Public Health Department Mike Meschke, Fort Collins Chief Planner Ted Shepard, Animal Protection Agent with the La Plata County Humane Society John Patla and Colorado Division of Wildlife Agent Trevor Balzer.
Chadborn went first. A private rancher, Chadborn keeps about 300 chickens on his property. He said red-tailed hawks so far have been the biggest threat to his birds, though skunks and raccoons also have made their mark. He acknowledged that bears represent the biggest threat to chickens and their owners, but with precautions, can be effectively kept out of pens. Electric fencing, he said, works best, and so far, he hasn't had problems.
Meschke discussed the possible public-health concerns that arise from hen ownership in urban areas. Aside from the issue of avian flu and other airborne diseases that he said were largely a nonissue, chickens, which do not defecate over and over in the same location as dogs do, need to be kept from leaving droppings on house entryways or other high foot-traffic areas.
There are health concerns, Meschke said, but they can be managed. Meschke keeps 32 chickens on his property outside of town.
After Meschke was Shepard, whom the city flew in from Fort Collins and put up in a hotel for one night. He discussed the recently enacted Fort Collins (population 135,000) chicken ordinance that allows permitted residents no more than six hens (no roosters), to be kept in a regulation-size pen, if the resident has permission from all adjacent neighbors.
Support for the measure in Fort Collins, he said, came through an organized group of grow-local advocates. One woman vocally opposed the measure at forums, which were held much like Thursday's, featuring, he said, almost identical panels of experts.
Several people noted that Fort Collins doesn't have the same bear problem as Durango.
A few months after the policy was enacted, only 11 Fort Collins residents have paid for a $30 permit. Shepard thought this low number might stem from the high cost associated with setting up a quality backyard coop.
Chadborn said chickens become inadvertent pets, and require more care than a lot of people realize.
Resident Christian Stoddard caused a few heads to nod when he pointed out that dogs also defecate in yards, escape backyard confinement and howl all hours of the night. Patla said that in 2008, the Humane Society was called to respond to five "chicken-at-large" calls in Durango city limits, and responded to "thousands" of loose dogs.
Mayor Leigh Meigs asked whether it was right that a population that has difficulty keeping bears out of trash cans be responsible for keeping the native predators out of handmade chicken coops, but gave no indication that she'd oppose a chicken measure if put to a council vote.
After the forum, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said if an opening arises, the City Council will move the issue to a study session, but the study-session schedule currently is booked solid through June.