DOW officials say humans, not bruins, problem in Aspen

ASPEN – Big things are bruin in Aspen.

A town sporting bear icons and totems ranging from mailbox ornaments to larger-than-life-size statues on restaurants has found itself neck-deep in real bears, and wildlife officers are saying the humans are to blame.

“It’s not a bear problem; it’s a human problem,” said Kevin Wright, the Aspen area district wildlife manager for the state Division of Wildlife. “People have to take responsibility for living in what is great bear habitat.”

When a wet spring set back the development of natural bear foods such as berries and acorns, hungry bears started following their noses into Aspen, which sits at the confluence of five major streams.

In spite of strict trash ordinances requiring garbage be kept inside or in bear-proof containers, bears found easy pickings on unsecured trash, rummaging through garbage containers and even walking into houses to help themselves to leftovers.

The onslaught of bears — at times nearly two dozen bears were seen roaming the streets and neighborhoods of Aspen — is reminiscent of summer 2007, when a late frost killed native foods and sent bears lumbering into town.

Since then, the town of Aspen and Pitkin County instituted stiff trash-control regulations, but a not everyone is cooperating.

Aspen is a natural magnet for hungry bears, with chokecherries and serviceberries growing in abundance along creeks and near homes.

However, leftovers from lunch carelessly tossed into an open waste receptacle will change the behavior of a bear, wildlife officers say. Bears also grow to like to fast food and find it by pawing through garbage cans and crawling into cars.

The pleasant smells emanating from a kitchen or trash can often tempt a bear grazing on natural foods to follow its nose to the easiest meal.

In their search for food, bears have learned to open car doors, lift off plate-glass sliding doors, and push on center-locking French doors until they pop open.

“They are very opportunistic,” said Sharon Baruch-Mordo, a doctoral candidate at Colorado State University who is participating in a five-year study of Aspen’s bears.

“Busting a window is just like busting into a garbage can. If you think about it from a bear’s perspective, (a house) is just another big box of food.”

Once a bear learns a door or window can be opened by guile or force, the reward, and its growling stomach, overcome any natural fears.

“If they can get one claw under an open window, that’s enough,” Wright said last week while showing Tom and Julie Paxton how to bear-proof their home near Castle Creek.

A bear entered the Paxton house earlier in the week when the landlady failed to lock a door, and then another (or the same) bear tried to enter the next night by breaking a window.

“It’s the first time in 31 years she’s ever had to lock the door,” Tom Paxton said. “We warned her about the bears, but she forgot. I don’t think she’ll forget again.”

The Paxtons have lived on Cemetery Lane since 1984, and this is the first year they remember bears being so aggressive.

“We had some bear issues in 2007, but nothing like this,”  Paxton said. “We used to sleep down by the creek but quit that about eight years ago.”

He said keeping the doors and windows closed at night might make the house safe, but has also made it uncomfortable.

“The other night around 3 in the morning I wanted to get some fresh air, and when I went to the French doors, there was a bear looking at me,” Paxton said. “Don’t get me wrong, I think bears are great. But this is too much.”

Three times this summer, bear encounters have ended with injuries to humans, including
Thursday night, when a bear attacked a man in a house on the west side of Aspen. The bear escaped, and the man’s injuries were not considered life-threatening.

Wright and other wildlife officers often repeat that these and other encounters result not from a bear problem but a human problem.

“People have to take responsibility for living here” in an area that naturally attracts large numbers of bears, he said. When people don’t respond to repeated warnings about keeping trash away from bears, “We’ve done about all we can.”

Bears that cause problems are trapped and relocated. Under the state’s “two-strike” policy, repeat offenders are killed, as are any bears that show aggression or lack of fear toward humans.

Nine bears have been killed in Aspen this summer. According the Division of Wildlife, as of Sept. 7, 24 bears have been euthanized in the region that includes Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Vail.

At times this summer, bear calls overwhelmed the ability of the DOW and the Aspen Police Department to respond, even though both agencies had extra officers on duty.

Aspen police and wildlife officers responded to more than 200 bear sightings in August, up from 16 in August 2008.

“We were answering 20 to 25 bears calls a night,” DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said.

“At one time, I recorded eight calls in 40 minutes.”

DOW officers were called in from around the state to help, with some working 24 hours out of their trucks, trying to meet the demands of human/bear incidents, Hampton said.

Leslee Francis said the bear that broke into her house near downtown Aspen in 2007 and ate candy from her son’s pack has shown up again this summer.

“There were some problems in 2007, but nothing like this,” said Francis, who noted they dubbed the bear “Starburst.” “This year it’s huge. We’ve never had issues like this.”

Surprisingly, the calls for assistance dropped abruptly last week, with only four calls recorded Wednesday night. Part of the reason might be the DOW finally managed to trap most of the troublemakers, Hampton said.

“We’ve handled 18 bears since Aug. 18,” he said.

Plus, the acorns finally have ripened, and some of the bears have returned to their natural foods.

But the respite might be short-lived. Aspen’s crab apple trees are rich with fruit, and Thursday a young bear was seen enjoying a meal in the trees in front of the Police Department.

“As soon as they exhaust that acorn supply, they’ll be back in town,” Wright said.

Thursday night also brought the latest human-bear run-in. In the west Aspen incident, the homeowner was struck in his home by the black bear, which left after the man opened a window for it, Hampton said. Wildlife officers set a trap for the bear and are patrolling the neighborhood. If captured, the bear will be euthanized for the attack, Hampton said.


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