Bear necessity: Getting tough on trash

Communities across the country are becoming more proactive in stopping bears from becoming aggressive and garbage-dependent

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2001

In Gatlinburg, Tenn., the trash issue first emerged in Chalet Village. About 700 cabins and rental units border the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and residents were plagued with bears and garbage.

Homeowners association co-manager Wayne Russell said the village, after a series of meetings about five years ago, passed a resolution making bear-resistant containers mandatory.

"We got tired to seeing garbage on the mountain and tired of picking it up," he said. "We're still not 100 percent, but we're close. It has made a big difference."

When Juneau's Assembly approved an ordinance last month that cracked down on garbage, it wasn't alone. From Tennessee to the Yukon, a growing number of communities are getting tough on trash.

Gatlinburg soon followed Chalet Village's example. Last summer, the city implemented an ordinance that set requirements for animal-resistant trash containers in about one-quarter of the town. Gatlinburg's permanent population of about 3,500 people is supplemented by about 4 million tourists a year and a number of visiting black bears.

Residents were required to buy a steel enclosure for trash cans, selecting from three versions on display at the sanitation department, at a cost of about $300, said city contract and grants administrator Larry Henderson. A state grant reimbursed residents for one-half of the cost of a new container on a first-come, first-serve basis, said Assistant City Manager Ron Greene.

The city sent out letters advising residents about the new ordinance and started by issuing warnings.

Violating the city's ordinance can result in a fine from $50 to $500 and is left to a judge's discretion, Henderson said. Sanitation department workers make note of violations, which are passed on to the police for further action.

Kim LeLozier, a wildlife biologist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was part of a committee that worked on ways to reduce conflicts between humans and bears. Bears would find food and garbage in town and come back into the park with unwanted behavior, he said. The key was to focus on garbage management, intentional feeding and eliminating nuisance bears, he said.

"We still have instances, but the number of sightings and problems is only a fraction of what it used to be a couple of years ago," he said.

Roughly 1,800 bears, or about two bears per square mile, live in the Smokies, he said. People are allowed to hunt bears within city limits, but not within the park. Bear management means food management, he said.

"There's a switch nationwide to be more proactive in dealing with bears before they lose their fear of people. We used to be more reactive, letting them stay around until they became dangerous," he said.

In Aspen, Colo., the city and other nearby communities tightened restrictions on garbage in response to public outcry about a black bear and two cubs that were killed in Snowmass Village in 1998, said Aspen environmental ranger Brian Flynn. The city spent time working with garbage companies to find trash containers that are both bear-resistant and people-friendly, he said.

"The number of bears getting into trash has diminished. On a scale from one to 10, last year it was a nine. We're probably at a five right now and we need to do better," he said.

Aspen's police officers, community safety officers and environmental rangers handle enforcement. Julie Weatherred is one of several people on the front line of the town's garbage battle.

"When people call, I'll visit sites, talk to owners, issue tickets if need be," she said.

Aspen's trash cans and Dumpsters must be metal with a lid and latch strong enough to withstand wildlife. The town isn't too picky about the design as long as it works, Weatherred said. Containers are allowed on the street only on collection day between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Much of Weatherred's work is education. The main goal of the program is to make sure trash is locked up, she said.

"We don't always issue a ticket right away, but we'll work with the person and do follow-up," she said. "Usually it just takes one fine to get people into compliance."

The first violation brings a $50 fine. The second violation costs $250. Each offending trash can is considered a separate violation. The third offense results in a mandatory court appearance.

"Last year was pretty bad. There were quite a few bears in town," she said. "We've stepped up enforcement this year compared to other years."

Birdfeeders are allowed under Aspen's ordinance, but all feeders must be suspended on a cable or other device between April 15 and Nov. 15 so bears can't reach them. The area below the feeders must be kept free from seed debris.

In the Yukon, the community of Faro put bear-proof containers around town and an electric fence around the dump in the mid-1990s.

"We used to have lots of bears in town. They'd wander through yards licking barbecues. There were a few face-to-face confrontations," said Beth Potter, a clerk in the town office. About 300 people live in Faro.

While the community used to have door-to-door garbage pickup, residents now place their trash in large bear-resistant containers which are spread out every couple of blocks. It's made a difference, Potter said.

"We'll get a couple during the fall hunting season when people hang meat in their garage, but it's rare to see a bear in town," she said.

Whitehorse also put up an electric exclusion fence. With the exception of yard waste, garbage must be in a can or it isn't picked up, said Jackie Hynes, a city environmental coordinator. All city trash containers are bear-resistant.

Tony Grabowski, environmental coordinator with the Yukon Territory's Department of Renewable Resources field services branch in Whitehorse, said the region's communities not only dealt with landfills and garbage, but also embarked on an education and public relations effort.

"It's paying dividends now. We're not getting called out at 2 or 3 in the morning about a bear in someone's backyard," he said. "But we know bears are around."

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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