Prompted by a rash of incidents involving bears foraging for food, on Oct. 8 the City Council is poised to vote on an ordinance to require residents who live west of I-25 to buy bear-proof trash containers or face fines of up to $500. Tens of thousands of people will be affected. This is a costly, blanket imposition that will in many cases be mandated in neighborhoods such as ours where bear visits are extremely rare.
My wife and I have lived near old Colorado City for the past 14 years and never once had a bear or any other animal disturb the trash container. We have only seen one bear in the neighborhood during that time, and that sighting was seven years ago.
I made a quick trip to Ace Hardware to see what a new trash can will cost us. With tax the price comes to just over $250. According to the new city regulations, many thousands of these containers will be required on the West side. The cost to local residents will be millions of dollars.
We are very familiar with the problems of bears and trash. We used to live at Lake Tahoe, Calif., on the aptly-named Little Bear Lane. Bear sightings were very common in our neighborhood. When we moved in, friendly neighbors cautioned us to carry flashlights at night so we wouldn’t accidentally bump into a bear.
Our first bear encounter was a midnight visit from a massive, 600-pound male. He was sitting splay-legged at the end of the driveway with our trash can between his legs, pawing through the waste for food scraps. Some loud hand-clapping and pot-banging from the second-floor window persuaded him to leave. When we called wildlife officials, they urged a low-cost solution: Pine-Sol.
A little Pine-Sol sprinkled in each trash bag and in the container repels bears from foraging in trash because the ammonia irritates their noses. Throughout the five years we lived at Lake Tahoe we never had another bear raid the trash. But just because the bears weren’t going through the trash didn’t mean they stopped wandering through the neighborhood.
A mother with two cubs showed up one night when lasagna was baking in the kitchen. A large male lumbered across the Forest Service lot adjacent to us when I was grilling salmon. I took the salmon inside and didn’t stick around to see where he was headed. Another male ambled by the deck when I was drinking coffee one morning. I swear he nodded hello.
In the years since we left, Lake Tahoe authorities mandated bear-proof containers. As a result, the bears no longer raid trash. Instead, they routinely break into cars and houses searching for food. One of our acquaintances there has had her car broken into by a bear twice. In her 28 years living at the Lake, this never happened to her until their bear-proof container ordinance went into effect. We visit there annually, and in some rentals we use owners have taken to installing crude (and arguably cruel) bear deterrents around doors and windows when the rentals are vacant — strips of wood pierced with nails.
There is a better solution. In Maine, wildlife authorities use a proven method with problem bears by deterring them with loud noises and non-lethal projectiles. Anyone curious about how it works should watch a few episodes of the TV reality show “North Woods Law.” From coast-to-coast, the method has proven effective, especially in towns with an urban-rural interface like Colorado Springs.
The City Council should study this problem more closely before approving a blanket mandate for bear-proof waste containers. Our wildlife officials should consult with other jurisdictions that employ a targeted approach to deterring foraging by nuisance bears, identify best practices, and copy methods that work.
In the meantime, City Council should scrap the current ordinance — and not in a bear-proof container.
John B. Roberts II is an author and artist and former senior producer of the nationally-broadcast political talk show “The McLaughlin Group.” He was a member of the U.S. Forest Service “ReGreen” advisory committee on wildfire reduction at Lake Tahoe and has extensive outdoors experience, including lots of bear encounters with happy endings.