The city of Aspen could do a much better job in its enforcement of scofflaws who violate its bear-resistant trash ordinance, according to a six-year-long study conducted by two Colorado State University students.
The study was conducted from 2005 to 2010 by Sharon Baruch-Mordo, who recently completed her dissertation for a doctor of philosophy degree, and Dave Lewis, a master’s degree student, who is finalizing his thesis. The study was done with the support of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).
The study concluded that public education, the preferred management tool to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife, had little effect in changing people’s behavior.
One of the goals of the study was to learn the efficacy of the “Bear Aware” education outreach program, as well as the city and county’s trash ordinances, which at the time didn’t mandate bear-resistant containers.
Over 11 weeks in the summer of 2008, Baruch-Mordo and volunteers employed the Bear Aware outreach to hundreds of residences in the lower Red Mountain and Cemetery Lane neighborhoods.
What she found was that people did not change their behavior by purchasing a bear-resistant container after being given educational materials and talking about the availability of trash leading to human conflicts with the bruins.
“If we think about education, it didn’t seem to make a difference,” Baruch-Mordo said. “We need proactive enforcement.”
Baruch-Mordo spent several weeks during the summers doing her own patrolling of dumpsters in housing complexes, construction sites and downtown alleyways. She also did routine patrolling downtown with Aspen police officers.
“... Most dumpsters (78 percent) receiving tickets were high risk, and a written warning resulted in approximately 40 percent reduction in the probability of violation for the ticketed dumpsters,” she wrote.
Baruch-Mordo also found that dumpsters in housing complexes could be better secured and construction sites are contributing to the problem of attracting bears into town.
The study also involved following the behavioral patterns of 50 bears that were collared in the Aspen area, and tracking their location by GPS every half hour. The study also looked at how much available human food sources contribute to the animals dwelling in urban areas, and how urban areas influence population levels.
The study found garbage to be readily available to bears throughout Aspen at all times, which was particularly problematic in bad years like 2007 and 2009, when natural food sources were bleak.
“I looked at the urban environment and where, when and how they are coming into town,” Baruch-Mordo said. “I collected foraging data and started studying attractants and enforcement.
“It didn’t seem like people were doing much.”
The study also employed what’s known as a hair snag method, where snares were used to estimate the bear population in the Roaring Fork Valley. Barbed wire was set up in certain locations: areas in Aspen, the Thompson Divide near Carbondale and Light Hill in Basalt, where bait was placed. For eight weeks, the snares collected hair follicles from bears that rubbed against them, and the bruins were then identified through DNA, Lewis said.
The results suggest that the population density for bears in the upper valley is one of the highest in the state, and there are many more here than previously believed.
The focus of the study indicates that management methods employed by local officials to enforce the trash ordinance are not effective in deterring bears from coming into town.
“This study provides evidence that current agency and municipality efforts are not necessarily effective in changing human behavior,” Baruch-Mordo wrote in her dissertation. “I suggest that the conservation community can increase efficacy of management tools by coupling education and enforcement into new management programs ...”
Perry Will, area wildlife manager for CPW, said local policy makers should be aware of the city’s weaknesses.
“Is there room for improvement? Yes,” he said. “The ordinances are only as good as enforcement. ... Council needs to make it a priority.”