Whitefish Adopts Ordinance Requiring Bear-resistant Garbage Cans

Despite 55% cost increase to residents citywide, wildlife managers say the shift to secure trash bins dramatically reduces the potential for bear-human conflicts

By Tristan Scott
Black bears dig through dumpsters in Whitefish. Photo courtesy of FWP

The Whitefish City Council has adopted a citywide ordinance requiring bear-resistant garbage containers at all residential properties, voting unanimously to approve a new policy they hope will help reduce the potential for human-wildlife conflicts, even as it comes with an expensive price tag.

Council’s May 2 decision came after it considered multiple iterations of a new ordinance that gained urgency last fall following a record year for bear-human conflicts inside Whitefish city limits, where during one extended period in September 2021 at least 19 black bears were browsing bins for unsecured garbage and other attractants. The new ordinance furnishes all residential accounts with 95-gallon animal-resistant garbage containers and comes with a 55% increase to monthly residential rates, which will rise from the current garbage service cost of $10.78 to a new cost of $16.75.

The city of Whitefish has an ordinance requiring homeowners to store individual garbage cans indoors until the day of collection or have an animal-resistant container, which are not currently provided to all residential neighborhoods through the city’s service contract. Under the statute, unsecured trashcans cannot remain at the curb in the days prior to a pickup.

However, that arrangement isn’t sustainable as not all residents have indoor storage space for garbage and others, including the influx of new out-of-state residents, don’t abide by the rules. Meanwhile, bears are using the Whitefish River as an arterial into town in greater abundance.

“These regulations were originally designed and adopted to reduce the accessibility of solid waste to bears and other animals,” according to Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith. “Unfortunately, the city has many residential and commercial locations that are currently using shared 300-gallon containers in alleys throughout town and along the river corridor, which makes it impossible for those residents and businesses to follow the regulations. Currently, there are no 300-gallon containers available on the market that meet bear-resistant requirements.”

To that end, the new policy provides all residential locations with a single 95-gallon bear-resistant container that will be serviced at the curb.

“City staff confirmed with Republic Services that individual containers will have to be serviced curbside due to logistics and the limitations of our alleys,” according to Smith. “This change in service may be challenging for those residents that are accustomed to alley service with a shared container. While they will not be required to store the bear resistant container in their garage, it must be pulled away from the right-of-way on the day of service.”

To accommodate the new service provision for containers in the city’s right-of-way, Public Works Director Craig Workman said the city will need to consider making its alternate-side parking standards a year-round requirement. The transition period to bear-resistant containers is expected to last until the end of August.

The ordinance will increase the cost to the city by approximately $282,500 for an estimated 3,949 residential accounts, with the city passing the cost increase on to customers.

“The cost and extra difficulty is not lost on me, but as we heard tonight there are significant bear-human conflicts and I see this as us doing our part,” Councilor Ben Davis said.

According to Erik Wenum, a bear and mountain lion manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the rise in bear-human conflicts isn’t going to be diminished without proactive solutions like the bear-resistant bin ordinance.

“We had multiple hundreds of incidents in town last year and just so you’re aware, four nights ago we had a radio-collared grizzly bear walk down Fifth Avenue,” Wenum said at the May 2 council meeting. “So this is a real deal and we have talked to the city attorney at length about the potential liabilities. We’re talking about an extra $60 per year per resident, but when you are looking at some of the settlements that cities have faced throughout the country – for $17 million and $18 million and $23 million – I think that would be a few dollars extra a month that will be well spent.”

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