ASPEN - Bear activity in and around Aspen seems to have dropped off significantly in the past few days, but August still was a record month in terms of summertime bruin-related activity logged by local police over the past three years.
Through Tuesday, with three days remaining in the month, Aspen police have recorded 292 bear calls in August, a whopping 668 percent increase compared with the 38 bear calls logged in the same month last year. The department recorded only 11 bear calls in August 2010.
Bear calls in July also were higher at 119, compared with 77 in July 2011 and 97 in July 2010. June wasn't as bad, with police logging 32 bear calls compared with 26 in the same month a year ago and 70 in June 2010.
As it turned out, mid-August might not have been the best time for Aspen Police Department bear specialist Dan Glidden to take a two-week trip to Iceland. When he returned to work a few days ago, bear activity immediately subsided.
"Last week, they tell me, bear activity spiked up. And then I checked yesterday, and it was quiet. Do the bears know the 'bear whisperer' is back or not? I don't know," Glidden joked on Tuesday.
As always, the bears were coming into Aspen because they lacked the usual food sources in backcountry areas, Glidden said.
"They must have found something to eat this week," said Blair Weyer, the department's spokeswoman.
Bears were all over town on Aug. 22, the first of two days that Aspen hosted the USA Pro Challenge, Glidden said. With thousands of visitors in town for the bike race, the bears were climbing trees and tended to remain there until it was dark and fewer people were on the streets, he said.
"They tell me on race day it was insane," he said.
Weyer pointed out that although the department has seen significantly higher numbers this month, "we are reminded that during 2010 and 2011 we had nearly perfect natural-food-source years, while this year is vastly different due to the drought."
She added that the department often receives numerous calls about the same bear or bears roaming through town, which can inflate the statistics.
This summer, the biggest reason why bears have been pouring into downtown has been unsecured garbage in downtown alleys, Glidden said. According to the Aspen City Attorney's Office, citations for violations of the city code related to unsecured bear-proof waste containers have been issued in the past 30 days to three entities: Kenichi restaurant, Independence Square hotel and the former Kitzbuhel lodge, now known as the Shadow Mountain Lodge.
All of the alleged violations were first offenses and resulted in bear-related messes, according to the City Attorney's Office. Glidden said the fine for a first offense is $250, while second and third offenses carry penalties of $500 and $999. The accused violators can pay the fine or make a case for innocence in Municipal Court on Sept. 5.
Downvalley, the bears' staple diet of chokecherries, serviceberries and acorns is starting to look better, Glidden said. He added that he wasn't sure about the quantity of the bears' food sources in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, which were heavily affected by the spring drought.
"If there are no acorns or berries, it's going to be a long fall," Glidden said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras said that so far this year in Area 8 - the 4,800-square-mile geographic district that includes much of the Roaring Fork Valley and Eagle Valley - his agency has had to euthanize 28 problem bears.
Another 16 have been tagged and relocated, meaning they have "one strike" against them. If those bears cause another problem, they will earn a second strike and likely would be put down under the department's two-strikes-and-you're-out policy on bears.
Porras stressed that those figures are for the entirety of Area 8 and don't represent any one county or municipality. He also said that while bear activity was significantly higher this year, it's not on par with 2007 and 2009, widely regarded as benchmarks for a spike in bear calls throughout Aspen and northwestern Colorado.
He issued a reminder that bears are likely to remain active during the fall, in both forest lands and populated areas, as they begin their annual food binge in preparation for winter hibernation.
"Obey local ordinances, secure your trash, remove any accessible food source, and never intentionally feed a bear," said Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in a statement. "If more people follow just these few simple recommendations, it can reduce the possibility of conflicts."
Velarde says that the information about living with bears is easy to find. Colorado Parks and Wildlife provides extensive information through its website, volunteer teams and publications. Bear information can be found online at http://wildlife.state.co.us/bears.
Wildlife managers report that low rainfall earlier this year reduced bears' natural food in many parts of Colorado, but it did not eliminate it. Bears were forced to travel longer distances to find food during dry spells, increasing the possibility that they will encounter people.
"Bears are especially mobile in the fall in their quest for the highest-calorie foods to put on enough fat reserves to make it through five months of hibernation," said Janet George, senior terrestrial biologist in Denver. "This makes it even more important for people to be diligent about securing food sources even if they've not had bear conflicts in the past."
Perry Will, Area 8 wildlife manager in Glenwood Springs, warned that no one should ever feed the bears.
"People that feed bears are killing them, plain and simple," he said. "It's very frustrating to our officers when people condemn bears to death by feeding them - intentionally or unintentionally - because it's our officers that have to carry the sentence out."