St. Mary Parish Bear Conflict Officer Catherine Siracusa with the new bear-proof cans.
More bear-proof containers coming
A group of residents concerned with the encroachment of black bears into residential areas attended an informational and feedback meeting Thursday.
Hosted by St. Mary Parish Government, St. Mary Parish Bear Conflict Officer Catherine Siracusa and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries large carnivore biologist Maria Davidson, the session revolved around dealing with more frequent encounters with the Louisiana black bear.
Bear-proof waste containers are at the center of the measure, as well as other initiatives.
“Everybody says we never had black bears here in St. Mary Parish,” Siracusa noted, displaying a map of parishes that do or once had significant populations of the animal, including St. Mary. “The Louisiana black bear is our state mammal and it was listed on the threatened species list, and in 2014 the population estimate was 500-700 throughout the whole state. In March the bear was removed from the threatened list.”
Males range in size from 250-400 pounds, Siracusa said, but there have been males that reached 500 pounds. Females average between 120-200 pounds, and they can live up to 20 years and females can have up to eight litters in their lives, 1-4 cubs per litter, and they stay with the mother for up to 18 months.
The species has sharp, curved large claws for climbing, they are good swimmers, and are undeterred by water. The bears can run up to 35 mph in bursts, and do not hibernate like more northern, colder temperature bears.
“Their activities revolve around the search for food,” Siracusa said. “Succulent vegetation in the spring, fruits and grains in the summer, hard mass like acorns, pecans and such in the fall.”
The bears live in dry areas, and much of that is near populated areas, for years south of US 90.
Though bear-proof trash containers began to be distributed years ago, a major expansion is under way. St. Mary Parish Government has negotiated with Pelican Waste that will provide containers in areas from Patterson to the Charenton Navigation and Drainage Canal, or 3,000 to 5,000 cans. This is for the unincorporated areas only; the towns and cities are responsible for forging their own contract with Pelican Waste if they choose to.
Those containers cannot be emptied by the usual garbage truck that uses a side loading mechanical arm. The bear-proof containers must be emptied manually, resulting not only in a cost for a rear-load truck, but manpower to unlock and empty the containers.
“Our main source of problems is when bears have access to human food,” Siracusa said. “That’s when we start having issues. Once a bear finds food, it will come back for more.”
Pouring liquids such as bleach or ammonia on garbage doesn’t help, Siracusa said. “Believe me, if there was some magic solution I would have figured that out a long time ago. Just pouring something on it, no.”
She said control measures include reducing smells by cleaning garbage cans weekly, double-bag food items if necessary, rinsing containers that held food to reduce scent and more.
“It is illegal to feed bears,” Siracusa said, by state law and by parish ordinance, available on the parish’s website. Bird and squirrel feeders, dog food and similar foods are often the first encounter with human feeds for bears, such pet and nature foods are much higher in calories than what bears find in the natural environment.
“Never leave any type of food outdoors,” Siracusa said.
She said cutting tall grass may help keep bears away to some extent, as the bears prefer shorter growth by instinct. Motion lighting can help alert residents that a bear may be on the property. Deterrents include electrical systems, alarms and more. This information is also available from parish government.
One resident on La. 317 installed an electric fence around his garbage containers prior to pick up day and it proved to be a viable deterrent. The cost was about $200.
There is also what’s called an “unwelcome mat” which is electrified but does not harm to the bear.
Davidson said there is a public notion that the solution is to relocate a nuisance bear. “I’ve been tracking bears in Patterson for 27 years,” she said. “Removing an individual bear might make us feel better for a week, or a month, or maybe three months, but it is not a long-term solution. We know that because we’ve been doing it for 27 years…bears are all about the food, whether I track them or shoot them or I kill them or I haze them, it doesn’t matter what I do, if you feed them, they will come back. You cannot teach a bear not to eat. So the secret is not to let them get something to eat, and you’d think that would be easy, but it’s not.”
A million dollars has been spent in St. Mary Parish alone, Davidson said. “We have not given a dime to any other parish. We’re really committed to making this work, but the person that doesn’t latch the can, or overfills the can, or using a non-bear-proof can. As long as the bears are finding something in there to eat there’s no other management option I can employ.”
An area that uses those practices and is 70-80% compliant sees a reduction of nuisance animals.
“I can do what I want to with the bears, but we don’t, because it’s training the residents to have sloppy garbage habits,” Davidson said. “For years and years we trapped bears, automatically, and it let people off the hook. So now when we get a call and go out, if a homeowner is not willing to do their part, we’re not bringing the trap.”
Bears have in the past been relocated as far away as Catahoula Parish, and have returned to St. Mary by instinct.
There is planting of food sources for the bears on the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge as well.
Parish Chief Administrative Officer Henry “Bo” LaGrange said the acquisition of additional bear-proof containers was accomplished without any additional cost to residents’ monthly fee. “We were able to negotiate with Pelican Waste for them to put out a huge sum of money to purchase these bear-resistant cans,” he said, “without an increase. What we did was negotiated a few more years on the contract, so it worked out and helped Pelican make that capital investment.”
Davidson added, “I don’t know of any program ever in any state, anywhere, where residents get a free bear-proof trash can. Ever.”