It started in 2002: The bears around Durango, Colorado, came down from the hills to feast on the city’s garbage. Normally, natural food—nuts and berries and acorns—keeps them in the woods, but a series of droughts and late freezes in 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017 left them hungry. Despite their fear of people, they showed up in subdivisions and more and more in the city’s downtown. They scattered backyard beehives and raided bird feeders, shimmying up poles to sip nectar set out for hummingbirds. They climbed into orchard trees for fruit and hauled themselves onto decks to look inside houses, which they sometimes entered, leaving kitchen floors strewn with food yanked from the fridge. They splintered fences and busted into garages and surprised residents grilling steaks. They ambled down crowded sidewalks and in at least one instance temporarily closed an elementary school. They stood full height to reach into commercial-sized trash bins. And, again and again, they knocked over trash containers in driveways and alleys to get at garbage.

Bryan Peterson, a Midwestern transplant to the city who founded Bear Smart Durango in 2003, drove around at night when the bears were most active, taking photos of garbage piles and plotting locations to alert officials about the number of bears who were in town. Independently, Colorado Parks and Wildlife had chosen Durango for a study. With all the human-supplied food, residents assumed the bear population was growing and that’s why they were seeing so many bears—there must be more of them.

Black bear walking on a path followed by three cubs.
A mother bear with an unusually large number of cubs: three. Normally, bears have at most two cubs. In bad food years, they have none. However, some bears that feasted on garbage in Durango grew so fat they had three. Few survived, though, because of conflicts with humans.
Jos Bakker

Researchers found the opposite: Though females bore more cubs than normal, fewer of those cubs survived. Bears who relied on human food died when they were hit by vehicles, shot by landowners or hunters, or trapped and euthanized by wildlife officials who considered them a threat to people. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of females in the study population dropped by more than half, from 175 to 82. 

Heather Johnson, then a Colorado Parks and Wildlife researcher, crawled into 190 dens to place radio collars on and take blood and DNA samples from hibernating female bears and their offspring. She had a favorite study subject: B7 was a fearless mother who made her den up a cliff one year and in a deep, narrow cave the next. She relentlessly pursued human food, to the point of showing up at a barbecue Johnson attended. B7 ate so much garbage she would pop off her radio collars over her neck. Fat from human food, she had triplets two years in a row. But the fate of those offspring illustrated the danger of coming down from the hills: Just one of B7’s cubs survived over a year.

While researchers were preparing their findings for publication, another late June freeze struck in 2017. Peterson watched, sad and helpless, as wild blossoms died and hungry bears once again came to town. Sixty-six died in conflicts with people—36 shot by landowners or euthanized by wildlife officials and 30 struck by vehicles or electrocuted.

Remains of a garage door busted open by a bear.
Using their acute sense of smell, bears seek human food when natural food is scarce, as is happening more often in and around Durango. One bear busted through a garage door to get at trash stored inside; another scattered unprotected beehives to eat honey; a third tipped an uncovered garbage can to enjoy an easy meal.
John Gage
Scattered bee hives after a bear broke in to eat honey.
Bear Smart Durango

To protect both bears and people as black bear populations recover and human populations grow, the Humane Society of the United States, advocates such as Peterson, researchers such as Johnson (now a research wildlife biologist with the United States Geological Survey), and wildlife and government officials are working to change human behavior. Their efforts are particularly urgent in the West. There, climate change, more frequent droughts, wildfires and bears spending longer periods outside their dens—Johnson found that in Durango during warmer years or when they are feeding on human food they emerge earlier and return later—are increasing interactions between bears and people.

When encounters and conflicts increase, so often do calls for bear trophy hunts, which currently take place in 33 states, including Colorado. During the last two decades, the number of black bears killed in the United States has risen from 34,000 to 51,000, according to a report the HSUS will soon release. The HSUS works to limit and end bear hunts, arguing that hunting has not been shown to reduce human-bear conflicts and may even increase them when bait is used to lure bears. Last year, the HSUS petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to halt the state’s hunt until it better understood the bear population and the impact of drought and wildfires. This year, the HSUS helped defeat an attempt to reopen a spring bear hunt in Washington state. 

They’re driven almost solely by food. That’s why being bear aware is so critical. Bears have an amazing sense of smell—seven times better than a bloodhound. All it takes is one person not knowing what they’re doing, and the bears will come.

Samantha Hagio, the HSUS

Instead of killing bears, the HSUS and others are promoting nonlethal means of reducing conflicts. A series of seven HSUS webinars created last year for different regions features bear experts describing what’s proved effective in Durango and elsewhere: removing human food sources that attract bears (see tips below). If that’s done, when natural food shortages cause bears to look for human food, they won’t find it and will move on. 

“They’re driven almost solely by food. That’s why being bear aware is so critical,” says Samantha Hagio, HSUS director of wildlife protection. “Bears have an amazing sense of smell—seven times better than a bloodhound. All it takes is one person not knowing what they’re doing, and the bears will come.”

There are few places in the country where humans have tried harder to coexist with bears than Durango. Other Colorado communities—including Colorado Springs, Boulder, Steamboat Springs and Vail—are using what researchers learned there. During the past 50 years, development around Durango has brought people and bears together as humans move farther and farther into the hills, in subdivisions built for retirees, second homeowners and tourists drawn by the beauty of the mountains and the Animas River Valley. The radio collars researchers put on individual bears show their movements: During a bad food year, one traveled 15 to 20 miles from high in the La Plata Mountains down into the Animas River Valley where people live. Most live closer to town and turn to human foods when natural ones are scarce.

“They know exactly where to go for food,” says Johnson. “They have these amazing memories. They know the landscape.”

Two maps showing the increase in subdivisions and highways built in Durango from 1970 to 2021
During the last 50 years, subdivisions around the city of Durango, in La Plata County, Colorado, have multiplied, reaching up river valleys and into the hills where bears live. New developments displace bears from their natural habitat and tempt them to eat human food.
Source: La Plata County Geographic Information Systems

In 2008, following the examples of Snowmass Village and other Roaring Fork Valley communities in Colorado, La Plata County, which surrounds Durango, passed an ordinance requiring residents to secure their garbage from bears. The city of Durango followed in 2010, requiring residents to keep garbage in a locked bear-resistant container or in a garage or shed. But most residents did not comply. Only 10% had bear-resistant containers at that point. 

So in 2013, Johnson and other researchers gave more than a thousand bear-resistant containers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to residents of two neighborhoods. They found that when at least 60% of people on a city block secured their garbage from bears, latching the two clips on the containers, conflicts significantly dropped. To cover a majority of the city and increase the percent of containers that were secured, in 2018 to 2019, the city supplied residents in other neighborhoods with automatically locking bear-resistant containers. Those worked even better. Researcher Cassandre Venumière-Lefebvre, a doctoral student at Colorado State University, found that more than 60% of bears’ attempts to get garbage inside containers in the city failed.

“Bears come in and they try the can and then leave because it doesn’t open,” says Venumière-Lefebvre, who rose early mornings to observe them. “They just try for a few seconds, and then move on. You see the bear walking down the alley and trying one, two, three.”

Right now, around 75% of Durango’s garbage containers are bear resistant. The city’s goal is to reach 100%.

It’s not enough for individuals to bear-proof their properties. Everyone in the community has to participate, say researchers and advocates.

“It matters what the people are doing on your block,” Johnson says. “It depends on your neighbors whether you are likely to have a conflict.”

Beyond the city, Peterson and Bear Smart Durango urge residents to secure their garbage, distribute electrified mats that deliver a small but persuasive shock to bears approaching doors, work with volunteers to gather fruit in orchards so that it does not attract bears and help put electric fences around hives.

A secure trash can
Simple but effective methods keep bears away from human food, protecting them and people. A secure can at a campground puts garbage out of reach.
magmarcz
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iStock.com
Electric mats on the ground in front of a home's door
One jolt from an electrified “unwelcome” mat outside a home bakery discouraged a bear who had repeatedly visited from returning.
Bear Smart Durango

In one of the mountains north of the city, Erin Jameson and her family live in a house up a steep winding road, with a beautiful view and bears passing by all the time. Before they moved there six years ago, the grandparents of the previous owners cooked salmon, put the skin in the garbage and stored that in the garage. Bears tore down the garage door.

Mindful of the danger, Jameson, who served as finance and operating director for a community foundation that funded Bear Smart Durango, keeps her garbage in locked tubs in the garage. She has no bird feeders. And she asked Peterson to surround her 11 beehives with a six-strand electrified fence so they wouldn’t draw bears.

“We’re in their territory,” she says. “I guess I feel it’s my responsibility to make it safe for them.”

bear in a cage
One of two young bears trapped and relocated with their mother for raiding unsecured chicken coops.
Ann-marie Ferretti Mee

For all the success in reducing human-bear conflict in and around Durango, Peterson is frustrated. He has seen so many bears put in cages because humans failed to act. He has a photo of a young bear who was trapped and relocated with his sibling and mother because they killed chickens. (Nothing happened to the owner who left the coop unsecured.) He has another photo of a chicken-killing bear he rushed to save by putting up an emergency electric fence around the coop on a Saturday night. Unbeknownst to him, a neighbor’s chickens were unprotected. Within a few days, the bear went after them. His fate was sealed: Under Colorado Parks and Wildlife rules, bears involved in more than one conflict are euthanized as a threat to people and property. 

Walking through alleys in downtown Durango this spring, Peterson counts the commercial trash bins that are closed and secured: just six of 42. In a subdivision outside the city, he sees few bear-resistant containers and a pile of garbage dragged into the woods. So far, 2022 is not a bad food year. What will happen, he wonders, when there’s another late freeze or when drought cuts the food supply in late summer just as bears are fattening up for winter?

In April of 2021, Peterson began getting calls about a bear near Trimble, an area up the river valley north of Durango with orchards that attract bears from the hills above. He recorded the reports in a spreadsheet. April 23: bear seen walking in field near river. April 25: bear coming up to door at home bakery. April 26: bear hanging around. April 29: bear into beehives. April 30: bear came up to deck and ran off.

That same day, April 30, Laney Malavolta went out for a walk nearby with her two leashed dogs. The 39-year-old was a year-round resident and experienced in the outdoors. She presumably knew about bears. But though her dogs came home, Malavolta did not. Her boyfriend found her body in the woods. An animal had attacked her. Wildlife officers discovered bear scat and hair and, using dogs, located a mother bear and her two 1-year-old cubs. All three bears were euthanized. A state wildlife pathologist identified human remains in two of the bears’ stomachs.

It is not clear what caused the rare bear attack, just the fourth such death recorded in Colorado. Did Malavolta surprise the bears? Did the mother see Malavolta and her dogs as a threat and attack to defend the cubs? One thing is certain: Where human food attracts bears, both people and bears are in danger.

We’re in their territory. I guess I feel it’s my responsibility to make it safe for them.

Erin Jameson, bear advocate

Peterson says he’s tired of just educating people. After years of visiting schools and summer camps and stores and fairs and homeowners associations, after showing hikers how to use bear spray and campers how to store food, after setting up trail cameras and inviting guest speakers and leading hikes and organizing events like the “Spring Bear Wake Up Social,” he says there are still too many residents who haven’t changed their behavior. This year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is giving away $1 million in human-bear conflict reduction community grants. In July, Peterson’s group, Bear Smart Durango, was awarded $206,539. It will cover two years’ salary for a county enforcement officer who can cite and fine people for not securing their garbage. It will also pay for bear-resistant trash bins and food storage lockers.

Another $225,000 will fund a five-year project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys to see if human-bear conflicts in this area can be managed through nonlethal means rather than increased hunting, says Mark Vieira, carnivore and fur bearer program manager for the agency. “It’s going to be up to the communities and the stakeholders.”

Late one afternoon in May, when bears have emerged from their dens to search for food, Peterson goes to check on a La Plata County garbage transfer station, which for years bears raided. Garbage used to be strewn all over the neighboring hillside. People in a subdivision on the top of the hill watched bears cut through their neighborhood on the way to unsecured trash bins.

Black bear feeding on birdseed in backyard
Bird food, including hummingbird nectar, attracts bears and can cause them to lose their fear of people.
Don Johnston/agefotostock
/
Alamy Stock Photo

Today, there’s only a little garbage on the hillside, and it’s old—the cans are rusty and the paper faded. Peterson asks the station manager if he has seen any bears and the man says no. The station now has two big bins with metal doors that lock with bear-proof carabiners.

“It’s a simple solution, right?” Peterson says and laughs, because it was not. A worker used to pull a weak, three-strand electric fence into place each evening. Bears pushed it aside. Originally, the bin doors were plastic. “When they first installed the metal doors, they were covered with footprints. The bears were mad.”

This evening, on each of the three doors of one bin is a single muddy footprint. Drawn by the smell of garbage, a lone bear has been here. But the bear could not get in. Instead of becoming used to eating at the transfer station, he left to search elsewhere.

“Remove the food source, remove the problem,” says Peterson.

This is what coexistence looks like. It does not require hunting. “Shooting a random bear in the woods is not going to stop human-bear conflict,” says Hagio. Instead, it demands that people take responsibility. It’s all about humans adapting. And bears staying alive.


Tips for coexisting

Here’s how people can keep bears and themselves safe: by removing human food that attracts bears, discouraging bears from approaching people and avoiding chance bear encounters.

trash iconGarbage and recyclables: Store in locked bear-resistant trash containers or in a locked garage or shed. Freeze meat or fish scraps until the day of garbage pickup.

fish iconCompost: Keep in bear-resistant containers or surround with electric fencing.

Bee iconChicken coops and beehives: Protect with electric fencing.

pets iconPets: Feed pets indoors and store their food inside.

grill iconGrills: Clean thoroughly after each use.

fruit iconFruit trees: Harvest ripe fruit promptly.

Bird iconBird feeders: Feed birds only in winter when natural food is scarce (and bears hibernate).

House iconHouses and garages: Keep doors and windows shut and locked—or locked in place with an opening too small for bears. Do not vent cooking odors outdoors.

Noise iconVisiting bears: Chase off black bears by shouting or throwing sticks, stones or tennis balls.

Tent iconCamping: Store food in bear-resistant containers or hang out of reach. Dispose of garbage in bear-resistant trash cans. Clean grills and tables.

Hiking iconHiking: Bring bear spray, hike with a buddy and make noise as you go. Leash dogs or, better yet, leave them home.

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