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Bears spending lots of time in Aspen

Janet Urquhart

ASPEN – Anyone without a bear story to tell in Aspen this summer is an outcast at the office water cooler. Bear encounters are the topic of conversation at the grocery store, on street corners and over coffee, not to mention at the police department, where bear calls are as numerous as the huge piles of scat being deposited daily around town – the hallmark of a successful forage by members of Aspen’s black bear population. While some local residents and visitors revel in the kinds of benign encounters that make for a memorable photograph or tale to tell, other human-bear interactions have been a little too close for comfort – perhaps for both species. A growing number of homeowners are dealing with kitchens-turned-disaster-areas after a visit – sometimes multiple visits – by hungry bears. Others have had their vehicles trashed – an unusual way to discover the ins and outs of one’s auto insurance policy.

A few bad-news bears, though, have faced far harsher consequences. At least two adult bears in the area have been killed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, along with a third in Redstone; three others have been trapped, tagged and relocated. They are marked for death if they get into further trouble, which is virtually a given, according to one wildlife officer. At least three others, including a sow and her cub, have died on Highway 82, while two motherless cubs are now in the care of a wildlife rehabilitation center in the hope they can be released to the wild. The taste for garbage, though, may eventually spell their doom. Bear activity doesn’t usually intensify until late summer and fall, but was under way this year by the last week of June. A late-spring frost, which destroyed much of the acorn and berry crop in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, is getting the blame for this year’s trouble. House calls Emily Casebeer, a 19-year-old Snowmass Village resident, had easily the biggest scare with a bear to date this summer when one overturned her tent at the Snowmass Lake trailhead and sniffed and pawed around in search of food, though there was none in the tent. She wasn’t attacked by the bear, but wound up with a bruised hip and puncture wound, though there was no hole in either her sleeping bag, or her pants. “It didn’t feel violent or malicious,” Casebeer said. “It was just the bear doing what it does.” Wildlife officers attempted to track the bear and would have killed it for its bold behavior, but the bruin escaped. “I think it’s unfortunate that it has to come to that,” Casebeer said. “I have mixed feelings about them finding the bear.” She’s not alone. Most local residents don’t want a bear in their house, but they don’t want the animals harmed, either. House calls, however, have become an all-too-common occurrence this summer. Instructions to keep windows shut and locked all day aren’t always greeted enthusiastically, say local police, who’d responded to a whopping 260 bear calls between April 1 and Aug. 11. “If the windows are open, the bear considers it an invitation to come in,” said Matt Burg, community safety officer. “I always say I’d rather be hot than picking up my refrigerator,” added Officer Rick Magnuson. “I’ve seen what a bear does to a refrigerator.” So has Sue Helm, an Old Snowmass resident who had a sow and two cubs march through her home two nights in a row earlier this month. The first night, the family entered through a closed, but unlocked door and headed for the kitchen, raiding the countertops, pantry, fridge and freezer. “I was sleeping. I didn’t hear them come in,” Helm said. “They walked right past my [closed] bedroom door. “They made a big mess, but really did very little damage.” The second night, the sow broke in through a closed, but unlocked window, awakening a house guest. Deputies chased the bears off with small beanbags fired from a shotgun. The third night, the bears tried again, but Helm’s home was locked up tight. Now, she’s considering an urban-style security measure – bars on the windows. Pet namesKevin Wright, a local wildlife officer who has put in some 15-hour days this summer just responding to bear calls, said he cringes when bears get a nickname – whether it’s Fat Albert in Aspen or the bear with the bum paw dubbed Tripod in Redstone. Local affection for a particular bear just makes Wright’s job more difficult, he said.”A lot of people love [Fat Albert]. They don’t want me to sneeze at him,” he said. “Other people want that bear put down.” Local sentiment regarding bears runs the gamut – from individuals who tamper with the state’s traps or let trapped bears loose to homeowners who demand action by wildlife officials, whether they’ve cleaned up their own act or not. Nance Schutter, a Williams Ranch resident, has her own system of garbage disposal: “I just don’t put garbage in my trash anymore.” She takes food waste to a secure Dumpster, she said. Schutter and her fiance, Carlo Marino, made the Denver television news after a bear caused nearly $4,000 in damage to their Chevy Tahoe, breaking into the vehicle though it provided nothing more than some old cough drops in the way of food.Killing a bear, however, is not an action wildlife officials relish either, Wright said. When it has to be done, a bear is tranquilized and then shot. “I sometimes think people think we’re cold hearted. That’s not the case,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing I have to do. I absolutely hate it.” Vail, Colorado


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