Aspen grizzlies may be from Alaska |

Aspen grizzlies may be from Alaska

Special to the Aspen TimesThis photograph, purportedly of a grizzly bear sow and two cubs in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness southwest of Aspen, appears to be a "hoax," said Chris Servheen, an expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

ASPEN ” Next, perhaps, Bigfoot will be spotted at Carbondale’s Mountain Fair, or the Loch Ness monster will disrupt the next regatta at Ruedi Reservoir.

An alleged sighting last fall of a grizzly bear sow and two cubs in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness apparently belongs in that same, unbelievable category.

A photograph of the alleged sighting of the bears southwest of Aspen appears to be a “hoax,” said Chris Servheen, a grizzly expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Word of the alleged sighting has circulated for months in some circles in Aspen and finally filtered its way to the Colorado Division of Wildlife in June.

Kevin Wright, the wildlife manager for the Aspen district, heard the rumors, traced the source and recently obtained the photograph of a grizzly sow and two cubs.

“We’ve got a lot of questions but we haven’t completely discounted this,” said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the wildlife agency.

Here’s the story behind the photograph, as told to the wildlife division:

– A nanny for an Aspen family took a bus to the Maroon Bells one day last fall and went on a hike. The woman got lost and came across the sow and two cubs, took the picture, got frightened and high-tailed it back to the bus.

– The family she works for eventually downloaded the image to their computer, learned the story behind the picture and started circulating it among friends. Word of the alleged sighting and the picture made it to Wright this month.

– Wright interviewed the family. They claimed there was no way their nanny would have been in a position to take the shot anyplace other than the Maroon Bells area. The family is attempting to put Wright in contact with the woman, who is now in Florida.

The wildlife division wouldn’t release the name of the nanny or the family for which she worked.

The investigation of the alleged sighting isn’t a high priority for the wildlife agency, but something they want to address because of the rumors.

“It’s not a criminal investigation,” Hampton said. “We’re not knocking down doors on this one. We have to take people at face value.”

The interview with the nanny is critical to determine whether the “sighting” was legitimate, Hampton said.

Investigators want to know where the picture was taken and the circumstances surrounding it, he said. They want to visit the spot to see if there is any sign of a grizzly.

The picture was taken in way where the bears are in focus, but the landscape in the background is blurred. There are no distinguishing natural features that would allow Wright to verify a location.

“We’re skeptical. We’ve got questions,” Hampton said.

Their skepticism is warranted, said Servheen, coordinator the grizzly bear recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula, Mont.

“I think I’ve seen that picture before,” he said when The Aspen Times supplied him with a copy of the photograph. He circulated the image among friends to try to trace its origin. They believed it came from Denali National Park in Alaska and is several years old.

“That’s the kind of photograph that is taken in a national park where bears are used to being around people,” Servheen said.

The image appears to be taken from a camera with a telephoto lens, Servheen said. The nanny allegedly took it with a Sony Cyber-shot, a hand-held digital camera.

Servheen said he cannot imagine how someone using that camera could get close enough to get the image that’s being circulated.

“We tell people to stay at least 100 yards away from grizzly bears,” he said.

Hampton said state wildlife officers wonder how a famously reclusive breed of bear would supposedly settle so close to a popular recreation area. The Maroon Bells area receives roughly 200,000 visitors during the warm-weather months. Hiking trails spiral all directions from Maroon Lake. The nanny supposedly hadn’t wandered far before stumbling across the sow and cubs.

The last confirmed grizzly bear sighting in Colorado was Sept. 23, 1979, in the San Juan Mountains. A female grizzly attacked an outfitter. He survived; the bear was located and killed.

Two hunters reported spotting a grizzly sow and two cubs southeast of Independence Pass last fall ” about the same time as the alleged sighting by the nanny at the Maroon Bells.

Wildlife officers checked the hunters’ claim by searching the wilderness area east of Aspen both on the ground and through the air. There were no signs of grizzly bears.

That sighting was roughly 22 miles east of Aspen. The Maroon Bells bus stop is 12 miles southwest of Aspen.

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