Bears may be in hibernation, but local wildlife officials are conducting a years-long study hoping to learn more about Durango residents’ interactions with the lumbering beasts.
Launched in 2012 and sent out again in 2014, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife survey is designed to find out “how town habitats affect bear movements, and how bears using town affects people, wildlife and wildlife management in general.”
Heather Johnson, CPW wildlife researcher, said those two previous studies garnered a less than 50 percent response rate.
Earlier this month, CPW officials sent the third and final round of questions to see how residents’ relationship with bears “may have changed over time,” concentrating on the urban area around Durango.
The survey, which takes about 20 minutes to complete, covers a variety of issues, from bear-proof trash cans and keeping pets locked up or inside to whether CPW manages bears effectively.
“Generally, it’s to understand the attitude and perceptions about bears, human-bear interactions and our management,” Johnson said.
“It’s part of a larger project in understanding why human-bear interactions are increasing,” she said. “There’s the ecology side of this issue: What’s happening with bears behavior and population, but also the flip side, which is to understand people as part of this issue.”
CPW’s questionnaire comes on the heels of a busy year for bear activity in 2015. The most notable incidents were two bear attacks at a homeless camp near the Durango Tech Center.
In May, two people were transported to Mercy Regional Medical Center after being bitten by a bear that wandered into their illegal camp. A month later, another bear attack sent one man to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
In both instances, the bear was euthanized, even though piles of garbage and cans of food were blamed for attracting the animals.
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW, said that this past year, within the 10-mile radius around Durango the study focuses on, there were five lethal removals and 13 bears struck by vehicles and killed.
Steve Barkley, Durango city code enforcement officer, said 72 warnings were issued for residents leaving out trash cans before or after permitted collection days last year.
A total of 48 warnings were written for scattering of trash in 2015.
Also, 23 citations were written for second violations ($50 fine) and nine for a third violation or more ($100 fine).
“I think it was busier than expected based on how good the natural foods were,” said Bryan Peterson, director of Bear Smart Durango. “I don’t recall a year that had this much property damage in town.”
Peterson said any information gained about how bears use an urban environment is extremely helpful in learning about the animal’s behavior, and subsequently, limiting incidents.
“Understanding what the people living with bears think helps us determine the effect of the actions we’ve taken to reduce conflicts with bears,” CPW social science researcher Stacy Lischka said in a press release.
“People’s responses to the survey will help us determine how to continue to reduce conflicts with bears using methods citizens think are acceptable, while still maintaining healthy bear populations in the area,” she said.
All Durango residents will be sent a survey, as well as a sampling of people in unincorporated parts of La Plata County.
Residents have until April 1 to complete the survey online or mail the questionnaire back to CPW.
And although bears are not roaming around Durango during the long winter months, May is not too far around the corner.
“They head down to lower elevations when they come out of their dens,” Peterson said. “There’s no food up high with the snow, so they come down and look for vegetation. And that puts them around people’s homes.”