Winter is barely over, yet local biologists already are hearing reports of black bears returning to familiar haunts: The back yards and alleys that held the promise of garbage before.
And a city bear committee that crafted 18 proposals to protect the bruins from trash and the perils that go with it, is pushing its recommendations to the assembly with a sense of urgency.
"Be aware the bears are waking up. They need food right off the bat," said Mark Farmer, committee chairman.
The panel's proposals include a ban on birdfeeders, mandatory use of bear-resistant containers and a requirement that residents put their garbage out for pickup after 5 a.m., not the night before. Farmer said some proposals, including a public awareness campaign and another asking the city to install bear-proof containers downtown, should take effect right away.
"There's no reason why some of this stuff can't be done immediately within the next couple weeks to get the ball rolling," Farmer said.
Although Mayor Sally Smith said the city probably could install some bear-proof containers around town soon, other proposals will take time to revise city code. It could be a while before they go into effect, especially since the assembly is wrestling with other pressing issues on flightseeing and tourism, she said.
"We're not going to get to everything we want to, so we're going to pick off what we can," said Smith, adding the city also might be able to kick off a Bear Fair this season to help teach the public about bears and trash.
State bear biologist Neil Barten said the most critical proposal is one prohibiting people from putting out garbage the night before collection, setting a curbside buffet for the nocturnal bruins.
"People often put them up at 5 or 6 in the evening for Monday morning pickup. That's the most important issue we need to deal with," Barten said.
Although the mayor called the proposal a great idea, she said the city needs to work out the details and questioned the feasibility of creating more work for police, already stretched thin responding to bear calls.
"The difficulty is going to be enforcement," Smith said. "One thing you want to do is take the pressure off the police department for bear calls, not add more pressure for bear-related calls."
Police Chief Mel Personett said he wanted the assembly to turn the proposal into law but hoped for voluntary compliance through a public awareness campaign - another proposal by the committee. He said a lot of residents still are not aware they are part of the problem.
"Some people don't understand the problem we have with trash cans going out the night before is that animals, particularly bears, tend to be more active at night," said Personett, who served on the bear committee. "I don't know that people understand that."
He envisions a system where police warn offenders first, then impose fines for non-compliance. The fines would escalate for each subsequent offense, up to a maximum of $300, said Personett, suggesting police would focus on problem neighborhoods that routinely attract bears. If non-compliance were widespread in those areas, the city probably would have to beef up garbage patrol, which includes one officer, he said.
"If we don't get substantial voluntary compliance, it's going to require more enforcement," said Personett.
Another recommendation says garbage should be made unavailable by mandatory use of bear-resistant containers or enclosures. The mayor said that could be difficult for some residents with limited incomes who don't have a secure place to store trash.
"The trick is going to be to describe what a bear-resistant container or enclosure is, so that having one mandatorily is not a hardship on anyone," Smith said.
However, Farmer said the proposal doesn't have to cost people anything, noting residents could keep garbage in their homes.
"That enclosure could be your garage, it could be inside your house. Most people are not going to have to build something new," he said.
For the bears, the stakes are high. Twenty-one bruins were killed in 1987 for getting into trash, and another 15 died in 1991. Last year police killed five bears.
Smith said she probably will start writing a draft ordinance next week but declined to predict when the issue would go before the assembly.
"The little guys are going to be waking up, so I hope we can get going on something soon."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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