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Bear barrage may intensify in Aspen

Charles Agar
Vail, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen TimesThis 400-pound black bear had to be killed after repeatedly breaking into the Wildwood School just east of Aspen.
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ASPEN ” On any evening after 10 p.m., a short ride through the maze of alleys in Aspen’s West End is like entering a black bear safari park lined with overturned Dumpsters and garbage cans ” a ready-made supermarket for the animals.

It’s a hard food year for bears, thanks to a late frost and summer drought The Colorado Division of Wildlife, following a strict “two-strike policy,” has killed three Aspen-area bears that had become aggressive in their quest for human food, and officials expect to kill more bears this summer in order to keep Aspenites safe.

In Colorado, when a bear breaks into a home ” a “first strike” ” the bear is trapped and relocated; in the case of a repeat offense the animal is euthanized. If a bear is violent or aggressive on the first infraction the animal is often put down without being relocated, officials said.



The Aspen Police Department has been increasingly swamped with 911 calls about problem bears.

Officers spend long hours tracking nuisance animals, using their car sirens and bright side lights to haze bears out of high human-traffic areas. And in many instances, in an effort to scare the animals away, police shoot bears with Kevlar beanbags that hurt but are not meant to causy injury.



On a recent Friday night, Aspen police Officer Roderick O’Connor was on bear patrol.

“They know the cars,” O’Connor said, adding that most bears just run when they see police headlights ” a good sign, he noted.

And after just a few minutes on patrol, dispatch pointed O’Connor to a “bear being a bear” near a condo complex east of Aspen.



The homeowner said a brazen bear brushed right past her as she left her garage and she called police.

The youngster ” O’Connor estimated the bear at about 200 pounds and two years old ” perched on a rock between two condo buildings and posed for pictures, at one point closing its eyes for a short snooze before lumbering into the underbrush.

Officers prioritize calls based on need, O’Connor said.

A “bear being a bear” call is usually just a bear walking in town ” a common occurrence. But when bears get into trash or break into homes, police must act.

“The Dumpster thing is not a bear being a bear; that’s a ‘bear in a Dumpster,'” O’Connor said, pointing out one toppled can after another in Aspen alleys.

Some cans, though designed to be “bear-proof,” just don’t stand up to the test, and bears are getting more and more clever, O’Connor said.

“We’ve been dealing with this all summer. Who knows what the fall’s going to be like?” O’Connor said.

“Bear in a Dumpster on East Hopkins,” a dispatcher called over the radio on a recent Saturday night, and Aspen officer Terry Leitch kicked his patrol Volvo into high gear.

Leitch, who other officers nicknamed the “bear whisperer” for the time he tried to talk an unruly bear into compliance, has had his run-ins over the years. He remembers being charged in broad daylight by one aggressive animal. Another bear that had eaten gallons of powdered hot cocoa left a modern art masterpiece on a downtown mall when Leitch tried to scare the animal off.

Usually, however, a good loud shout makes most bears run away, Leitch said.

Responding to the call Saturday, Leitch pulled into a narrow alley behind Hopkins Avenue to shine headlights on a male bear climbing from a Dumpster. The bear had torn the lid off the steel container to get in.

Alarmed by the car lights and perhaps remembering the painful sting of a Kevlar beanbag, the 400-pound creature leaped from the bin and, stretching to his full length, pushed the huge Dumpster across the alley like a frustrated shopper might discard a grocery cart.

The bear would return to the Hopkins alley buffet repeatedly through the night, and it was chased him into the bushes and through back alleys with flashlights a few times.

Leitch is seeing more than the usual amount of bear activity for this time of year, and he expects more confrontations in coming months, he said.

Another bear call Saturday near Shadow Mountain led to a distraught hotelier standing on the street, a pot lid and spoon in his hands set to make a racket and scare the bear off.

“I was going to scare it, but I was too scared to scare it,” the man said.

On weekends, Aspen police deal with almost as many drunks as bears. One the nights we joined them, there was a drunk driving arrest and a domestic dispute involving alcohol.

Then, shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday morning, things got interesting.

As the bars emptied and young revelers took over the downtown Aspen streets, two large bears took up residence at separate ends of Wagner Park, each drawing its own crowd.

One bear perched in a tree across from McDonald’s and looked anxious, huffing and grunting at onlookers. The other bear, most likely the 400-pounder we’d seen earlier in the evening, ignored the noisy humans and dined on leftovers from the “bear-proof” city container he’d managed to open near Pacifica Seafood and Raw Bar.

Driving our own car for more bear hunting in the wee hours that morning, every turn onto a new street or down a new alley held promise of another sighting. All told, we spotted more than 10 bears in just a few hours over the two nights.

“It’s a Mother Nature issue, it’ a habitat issue and it’s a trash issue,” said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife.

And, he added, the prognosis for Aspen’s estimated 40 to 50 hungry black bears in coming months isn’t good.

A late frost in June 2007 devastated the summer berry crop, and the extremely dry, hot conditions this summer have killed chances for the healthy fall crop of acorns that bears rely on to fatten up for winter, Hampton said.

Driven to populated areas, some bears lose interest in natural food entirely, Hampton said.

And when cubs learn to crawl into Dumpsters, it creates generations of garbage-dependent bears.

“Trash is meth for bears. They get addicted to it,” Hampton said, and the only solution is “taking those bears out.”

“The situation will only get worse as we enter September and the bears’ biology triggers a phenomenon known as hyperphagia, when bears eat 20,000 calories per day. When that period comes we’re going to have a lot more hungry bears,” Hampton said.

Hampton does not believe, as many Coloradans do, that the increase in human-bear encounters is because of fewer hunters or the 1996 vote terminating the spring bear hunting season. The number of bears killed during the fall hunting season alone is as high as when there were two annual hunts in 1996, Hampton said.

“The bigger factor is the human population increasing,” Hampton said. “[Development] is moving up the hillside right into that transition area [between human and wildlife habitat] where the bears are.”

Aspen District Wildlife Manager Kevin Wright traps problem bears that break into homes and businesses, and said normally when he transports the bears they grunt menacingly, puff their cheeks and clack their teeth in warning.

But this year, even when trapped and in close proximity to humans, the animals are too busy finishing off the bait in the trap to be afraid, Wright said.

“These bears are very hungry,” Wright said.

He’s trapped and moved many bears out of Aspen and said he’ll continue to set traps. But Wright is running out of places to take the bear, and says many of the animals that he relocates return.

And there are a number of repeat offenders that will be killeed this year because of Colorado’s two-strike policy.

“When they return and get into trouble, we do need to put them down,” Wright said.

But if Aspen residents can button down their garbage, Wright said, then the bears will stop associating humans with food.

“There are a lot of people doing the right thing,” Wright said.

In Vail and nearby Snowmass Village, officials have not seen any bears euthanized in 2007, and Hampton believes the success in both cases is because of strict rules and enforcement around garbage, Hampton said.

Snowmass Village has had a trash ordinance in effect since 1994, and with two officers policing local trash receptacles, there have been no aggressive break-ins, nor bears transported or euthanized, said Laurie Smith, a Snowmass Village wildlife officer.

“I think we are doing a really good job of bear-proofing our town, but it’s a constant work in progress,” Smith said. “The bears are showing up every single place that’s not bear-proof this year.”

In Vail, citizens took action after two bears were euthanized in 2005, Hampton said.

“People in Vail realized the Division of Wildlife isn’t going to change our response,” he said. “We will put down bears when they trip that policy.”

Tougher ordinances, strict enforcement and citizen action in Vail has reduced “nuisance bear” calls. Hampton said the bears are still in town, and police receive plenty of calls about bear sightings, but the bears aren’t breaking into homes or popping lids off Dumpsters.

“There’s no cure-all, but you can have some success and Vail is proof of that,” Hampton said.

Teams of “Bear Aware” citizens, who educate their neighbors about locking up their homes and garbage receptacles, have been successful in Glenwood Springs and Parachute, and Hampton was encouraged to hear rumblings about a group organizing in Aspen.

By encouraging elected officials to strengthen garbage ordinances and pushing for strict enforcement of existing rules, proactive citizens can make a difference, Hampton said.

And the result: Fewer bears trapped, drugged, euthanized and buried in the Pitkin County Landfill.


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