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Convictions rare in bear shootings

Scott Condon
Vail, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times file photoPeople have a right to defend themselves if they feel threatened by a bear.
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ASPEN ” A wildlife manager who investigated the shooting of a yearling bear May 19 has presented his case to the district attorney’s office, but a decision on charges is a week or two away, officials said.

A homeowner in Lazy Glen Mobile Home Park shot the yearling Colorado black bear. Wildlife division representatives said the bear was in a house, chased out, then fatally shot outside. The yearling weighed between 40 and 50 pounds.

Kevin Wright, a longtime wildlife manager for the Aspen district, questioned a suspect, but his name wasn’t released.

If history is a guide, getting a conviction could be a challenge. The suspects in two other bear shootings in the Roaring Fork Valley this decade weren’t prosecuted.

In one case, a man shot a bear he felt was threatening his wife and child while they were building a cabin on Basalt Mountain. He was cited, but the charges were dropped as court proceedings began.

In another case in Pitkin County, a resident of Upper River Road shot and killed a bear. The carcass ended up in the Roaring Fork River. Authorities declined to pursue the case because a conviction was unlikely.

Arnold Mordkin, a Snowmass Village defense attorney who defended the man who shot the bear on Basalt Mountain, said those types of cases are tough for prosecutors.

Colorado law allows those who feel threatened by a bear to defend themselves with “deadly force,” he said.

The reality is that bears can pose a risk even though some people like to think of them as “warm, cuddly things,” Mordkin said.

His client in the Basalt Mountain case shot the bear after it had been hanging around his family’s cabin for an extended period. Tips from wildlife officers didn’t keep the bear away. The man shot the bear on one of its return trips in search of food.

Mordkin said the only time a person could be convicted for shooting a bear is if witnesses saw the shooter taking unprovoked “potshots.”

Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said numerous factors enter into a decision on whether to charge someone with shooting a bear. The key for investigators is interviewing the shooter and finding out “what they were thinking,” Hampton said.

Some people may be more easily intimidated than others by a bear, depending on their experiences with hunting and wildlife, he said.

For example, a High Country resident who hunts might may not be intimidated as easily as a second-home owner from a city.

The size and the intent of the bear also weigh into the decision. A bear yearling that emerges from hibernation small and relatively weak poses a different threat than an adult putting on the pounds in the fall, Hampton said.

It also makes a difference if the bear is acting aggressive or simply passing through a property, he said.

In both prior cases in the Roaring Fork Valley where shooters weren’t prosecuted, the bears were adults.

Hampton said he is aware of only “a handful” of cases since he joined the agency in 2004. There have been “less than a handful” of convictions, if any, he said.

It is no coincidence that three bear shootings have occurred in the Roaring Fork Valley, Hampton said.

“You guys are in bear central,” he said. “There are a lot of bears and a lot of people ” and a lot of people that aren’t used to bears.”


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