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A bear of a problem in Aspen

David Zalubowski/APAfter tipping over the garbage container on the right, a black bear forages for food behind an Aspen office building on Aug. 26. Roughly 20 Aspen businesses have been either warned or ticketed this summer for failing to secure trash bins. The fine for violating the city's wildlife ordinance is $250.
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ASPEN – The status quo clearly isn’t working, so the Colorado Division of Wildlife is going back to the drawing board for solutions to Aspen’s ongoing problem with hungry black bears.

In recent years, the Aspen area has become ground zero for bears foraging for human food, which has put the Division of Wildlife in a frustrating position to find solutions. Garbage and other food sources left out by homeowners, visitors and business owners are partly to blame, along with the fact that Aspen is situated in prime bear habitat.

Compounding matters is that plentiful rainfall this year has damaged bears’ main natural food source – berries – and sent them scavenging for food in a town abundant in Epicurean smells.



What to do about it? And what’s next for the bears? These questions plague wildlife officials, who have come under fire from the public for enforcing the agency’s “two strikes” nuisance policy, which calls for relocating a bear after its first infraction, and killing it the second time it breaks into garbage cans or homes.

Aspen has gained state and national attention for its increasing bruin problem, which has led to hundreds of calls to police and dozens of break-ins this summer. One bear entered a home through locked French doors and clawed a woman. Two weeks ago, a sleeping woman was scratched by a bear on her deck. Both bears were later killed by DOW officers.



On Thursday, Sept. 10, a 69-year-old man was attacked in his home in the Meadowood subdivision after a bear entered through the front door. He was transported to Aspen Valley Hospital with superficial wounds to his face. DOW officers have set a trap on the property and plan to kill the bear.

Offending or aggressive bears are treated like criminals, not unlike a human being who attacks someone or breaks into a house – they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. For bears with more than one infraction, that means death.

“Unfortunately, we are giving bears a lot of slack,” said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton. “But we are as an agency cognizant that the word ‘attack’ can cause concern … they are not aggressive animals.”



Summer 2009 appears to be shaping up as the worst season on record – the DOW has had to kill 11 “problem” bears between Basalt and Aspen this summer. Officials are bracing for more aggressive bear behavior in the next two months as the animals prepare for hibernation.

In the very near term, at least, it appears the bear problem has subsided. A few weeks ago, calls to the Aspen Police Department were running between 20 and 25 per night; now it averages about four, according to Hampton. He attributes the decline to the DOW either euthanizing or relocating the offending bears.

“We got very aggressive last week on the ground clearing out the bears … I bet we relocated seven last week,” Hampton said, adding at least 20 bears have been moved out of Aspen this season.

What makes 2009 hard to understand is that, Hampton said, there was not a “full natural food failure.” Bears have learned that they don’t need to forage in the woods because they can simply open locked trash bins or pry open windows to raid refrigerators. Hampton believes there are at least two generations of bears in the Aspen area that have learned in previous years to search out human food when their natural sources are not as plentiful.

“This year has been very different,” he said. “In the past, every five to seven years there was a food failure … now it’s every other year.”

In 2007, bears ran rampant around Aspen and 13 of them were killed by the DOW. During that year, a late frost in June devastated the berry crop, and the extremely dry, hot conditions killed chances for a healthy fall crop of acorns that bears use to fatten up for winter. In 2005 as well, a lack of natural foods drove bear families into Aspen in great numbers.

“2009 has changed the equation a bit because the bears were habituated in 2005 and 2007, and it’s proved that they have learned,” Hampton said, adding that more development has pushed bears out of their habitat and into town.

There are several factors to explain all the bears in the area, Hampton said, and they all work in combination. The fact that thousands of people and their trash inhabit Aspen doesn’t help matters, he added.

Last month, beleaguered DOW officers asked the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to shoot and kill aggressive black bears that break into buildings or pose a threat to humans if a wildlife officer is unavailable. The unprecedented move illustrates that the DOW can no longer handle all of Aspen’s bear activity.

On Sept. 10, the very day that the 69-year-old man was scratched by a bear in his home, the APD announced guidelines under which officers with specific training may shoot bears – when a specific, identifiable “repeat offender” is located and the DOW has requested that it be killed; when a particular, identifiable bear enters a residence and injures a human and the DOW requests its euthanization; and at the officer’s discretion in any life-threatening situation.

The policy anticipates that officers, if faced with killing a bear, will call the Sheriff’s Office first, because deputies are equipped with shotguns, the preferred weapon for bears.

Once the activity levels die down and the bruins go to sleep for the winter, DOW officials will begin discussing new policies to address Aspen’s black bear population.

“The things we have in place are not working,” Hampton said. “But our policies and community ordinances do work at some level.”

Educating the public about having bear-proof containers and eliminating food sources will continue to be a focal point. The DOW also will continue relocating and euthanizing habituated bears.

The DOW already increased the number of licenses it will sell to hunters for this bear season, which began Sept. 2. The wildlife division sold 585 licenses in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys last year. That will increase by 45 licenses, or 7.5 percent, to 630 this year.

Up for discussion is a proposal to issue even more fall bear-hunting licenses in order to control the bear population around Aspen. Hunting is already a key population-control tool for elk and deer, which have fewer natural predators than they did historically.

Before the DOW allows still more licenses, it wants a better handle on the actual Aspen-area bear population. The agency is working with Colorado State University to study the habits of bears in Aspen and how many there might be. It’s possible to estimate how many bears live in an area based on what hunters bring back, specifically numbers of females.

The DOW also uses hair snares, which are laced with smells that attract bears; the barbed wire snags their hair, and scientists collect and send it to the lab. In the root of each collected hair is enough DNA to identify species, individuals and sex.

“If all the research comes together and the population is higher than what the habitat can support, we’ll issue more hunting licenses,” Hampton said. “Everything is on the table as we sit down in the discussions.

“We have to discuss what we can control as a government agency.”

csack@aspentimes.com


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