I have to admit I was a little shocked. I got the report of a small black bear, brown in color, crossing Pearl near 5th St. I went to investigate, to see what may have attracted the yearling bear to this part of town. What I saw was alley upon alley full of garbage, compost, and recycling bins, one after another, just waiting to be turned over and picked through and it wasn’t even garbage day.
One of the commandments of living in bear country was being violated…by everyone. Keep your garbage secured until the day of pick up. I work as a District Wildlife Manager for the Division of Wildlife and my district is north Boulder. I started in this district in January of 2009. Due to a combination of naiveté and limited bear incidents in the city last year, not only did I not realize this is how much of west Boulder handles their garbage, but I found it more surprising than many of the people around me. The more I talk to residents, other officers, and city personnel, the more I understand why this is and the more I feel it is necessary to change the way west Boulder handles their garbage.
There is wildlife everywhere in Boulder. Bears, like our other opportunistic urban wildlife species, will go wherever they can and eat what they can find. Food scraps in garbage and compost bins provide an easy and abundant source of calories for bears, though not a healthy one. A five minute walk to Mountain Parks and Open Space property for west Boulder residents is also a five minute walk for the wildlife to come into the city, including bears.
The problem with garbage is not the result of a public that doesn’t care. Boulder is full of people who are concerned about wildlife and demonstrate daily their willingness to go out of their way to benefit wildlife. There are a few reasons why most west Boulder residents handle their garbage the way they do. One big one is that many residents simply do not have an acceptable place to store their garbage throughout the week (no shed or garage). There are bear-proof garbage cans available, but many residents either cannot afford or are unwilling to take on the additional cost. Some residents painstakingly store any food-type garbage in their house until pick up day, and I have no doubt that helps. I do, however, doubt that this is something everyone is willing to do.
There are also a few reasons why this problem hasn’t been addressed already. For one thing, even if all of the garbage was locked down tomorrow, there would still be attractants drawing bears into the city in the form of bird feeders, back yard fountains and pools, ripe fruit on the trees, and hobby bee hives. Is it really reasonable to ask residents to pay for a bear-proof garbage container when the bears will come into town anyway because of bird feeders? I recognize there are other attractants adding to this problem, but I see the garbage as the largest issue and one solution which would have the most impact. Another reason this problem has yet to be solved is just a result of our busy lives and the many issues our communities face: we are reactionary, and if we don’t see the problem for ourselves we often fail to give it the priority it deserves.
I can look at this issue and state that garbage is a priority because throughout the summer and fall I spend a lot of time with bears. I spend so much time laughing at bears, crying for bears, talking about bears, and educating on bears, that it is easy for me to make the connection between bears and garbage and dead bears. When the Division of Wildlife relocates a bear from the city, the bear gets an ear tag. If the bear is in a position where we feel we need to relocate it again, following strict state-wide policy, that bear is put down. I truly feel we can prevent that bear from coming into town in the first place if we can convince it that people and the city have nothing, no garbage, to offer.
Since this issue is widespread, it is going to take a solution that is both reasonable and practical. I think no one can determine what solution is best other than the residents this issue affects. I encourage everyone to not only share feedback with me in the upcoming months but to also become involved in the city’s efforts by participating in the creation of the Urban Wildlife Management Plan. Information on the plan can be found at www.boulderwildlifeplan.net. We can and should generate a remedy for the problem of unsecured garbage, and if we do we take a crucial step toward making Boulder a more bear-friendly city.