Conversations have reignited over whether the city of Durango should allow electric fencing within town limits after a bear last week broke into a high-end chicken coop, killing six chickens.
“It’s been the best tool available for deterring bears from pretty much everything,” Bryan Peterson, of BearSmart, said of electric fencing, which is barred in Durango city limits. “The bottom line is: if you allow residents to raise chickens and bees in town, then you also need to allow them the best means to protect their investment.”
Last week, Jacob Kapp, who lives on the 1600 block of West Third Avenue, awoke around 2 a.m. when his dog started barking at something in the backyard.
Kapp turned on the back porch light and saw part of a chicken carcass near the side door. With the scene seemingly clear of any threats, he and his wife went to check the damage, finding only feathers and chicken parts.
“Luckily we cleaned it up before the kids woke up,” Kapp said. “It was carnage.”
This is the family’s first year keeping chickens, and Kapp said he purchased a $1,000-plus heavy duty chicken coop, called The Defender, knowing the risk bears pose to livestock in Durango.
“That thing is like an iron fortress,” Kapp said. “But he punched a hole into the side door where they roost, ripped off the hinges and got to the chickens. He destroyed the thing,”
Kapp said his friends and neighbors had told him what he already knew: electric fencing is the best, and sometimes only, option to keep chickens and beehives safe.
But a Durango city ordinance that dates to the 1960s prohibits the use of electric fencing and barbed wire within town limits. The city requires people who keep chickens to have a permit, and 10 people have permits, according to the city clerk.
The Kapps said they did not have a permit and were not aware that one was required.
Ron LeBlanc, Durango city manager, said “electric fences are not compatible with urban environments,” as they pose a risk to children and pets that may accidentally come into contact with the fence.
“What would be the rationale?” LeBlanc said of changing the city code, which would require City Council approval. “Why should the city impose a change to its policy just so someone can have chickens? The responsibility is for that person is to make a chicken coop that’s bear proof.”
However, wildlife managers across the country maintain that electric fencing is the best way to reduce urban wildlife conflicts, and that it is possible for electric fences and urban environments to coexist.
In Missoula, Montana, for instance, city code that also dated to the 1960s prohibited electric fencing. But after an uptick of human-bear conflicts, the city government last fall instituted a new regulation that allows electric fencing within a person’s backyard, away from sidewalks or public rights of way.
Jamie Jonkel, a bear manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said the old fears and preconceived notions about electric fencing quickly dispersed once they proved their effectiveness.
“It’s one of our best fool-proof methods,” he said. “Bears teach themselves rather than us teaching them to keep away because they shock themselves when they exhibit whatever behavior we don’t want them to have.”
Jonkel said he rarely hears of children that have been momentarily shocked from touching the electric fencing, but for the few that do, “they don’t touch it a second time.”
“And if it’s on someone’s private property, inside their property, and their own kids touch it, well then that’s a parenting issue,” Jonkel said.
A six-year Colorado Parks and Wildlife study on human-bear conflicts that concentrated on areas around Durango found that issues will continue to rise as the state’s population is expected to hit 8.7 million to 10.3 million by 2050.
In La Plata County, the population is expected to reach almost 62,000 by 2020, and nearly 75,000 by 2030. The forecasted population growth is accentuated when considering a state report that shows human-bear conflicts are growing 4 percent a year, twice as fast as the state’s population.
Matt Thorpe, a wildlife manager for CPW based in Durango, said the agency has suggested the city revise its codes in preparation of the forecasted conflict.
“One of the challenges within the city of Durango is that the most effective tool to protect backyard chickens and bees is an electric fence, which is prohibited by city codes,” he said. “It limits us, and it limits public ability to protect those items.”
Thorpe said CPW does not plan any immediate action for the bear that killed the Kapp’s chickens. Instead, the agency will continue to monitor the bear to see if it repeats unwanted, and potentially dangerous, behavior.
“Hopefully this bear will just move on,” he said.
BearSmart’s Peterson said he has advocated to Durango city staff and city councilors over the past few years to allow electric fencing in town limits, to no avail.
“They were pretty adamant about not allowing it,” he said.
City Councilor Sweetie Marbury said she would not support allowing electric fencing in town limits, citing the concern they pose a danger to children.
Councilor Dick White said he was unfamiliar with the issue. Councilors Chris Bettin, Dean Brookie and Melissa Youssef did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.