The U.S. Forest Service wants Aspen-area campers to stay a step ahead of hungry black bears.
The White River National Forest is proposing a new rule for mandatory storage of food, garbage and other attractants at its established campgrounds in the Roaring Fork, Crystal and Fryingpan valleys and other campgrounds scattered around the vast forest.
If approved, the rule would be in place for five years, with possible extensions. Campers who don’t comply would be subject to a $5,000 fine for an individual and $10,000 for an organization or possibly time in jail.
“We’re being proactive as much as we can,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. “We want to disassociate campgrounds with food sources.”
The White River has had multiple conflicts between campers and bears since 2010, particularly when natural foods were scarce. Bears have fed on human food, garbage, pet food and even toiletries when campers were out on adventurers or sleeping. The conflicts occurred in campgrounds and high-use backcountry areas in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, as well as the Eagle, Holy Cross and Blanco districts.
Conflicts have been so frequent at Difficult Campground, located four miles east of Aspen, that the Forest Service has closed it to use by tents and soft-sided campers at times because of the danger.
“Once rewarded, bears can become more emboldened, escalating the potential for adverse encounters with visitors,” the White River supervisor’s office said in a statement about the proposed rule. “Some incidents even involved bears that approach campers undeterred by human presence, shouting, car horns, and other noise and commotion.
“This is not normal bear behavior but it is the result of food-conditioned bears,” the statement continued. “These bears become dangerous to people and are often euthanized in defense of human safety and property.”
The Forest Service said its proposal to require storage of materials that can attract bears has the support of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The federal agency has spent thousands of dollars in recent years installing bear-proof food lockers and trash bins at some of its campgrounds. All 48 sites at Difficult now have food lockers, according to Martha Moran, a recreational specialist with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Roughly 25 lockers each have been installed in Chapman Campground in the Upper Fryingpan Valley and Redstone Campground in the Crystal Valley.
“We started at Difficult because Difficult is bear central,” Moran said.
Weller Campground east of Aspen and Little Maude on the shores of Ruedi Reservoir are slated to receive bear lockers this year, she said. The lockers cost $800 apiece and its takes about one day of labor to install them, according to Moran.
The investment is a high priority for the Forest Service, Fitzwilliams said, because if it invites people to use campgrounds, it must do what it can to assure their safety.
Federal procedures don’t allow the Forest Service to simply enact the storage rule. It must give the public a chance to comment on the proposal before it issues a special order. The White River is accepting comments until May 12. Online comment can be submitted at https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=44169.
If approved, the mandatory storage rule would be in place from May through October starting this year. All food, garbage and “odorous attractants” would have to be stored securely while the campsite is unattended.
The attractants could be stored in a food locker, a bear-resistant container, a closed and locked vehicle or it must be properly hung in a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet away from a tree trunk or branches. Rangers will have the leeway to give warnings to campers that don’t comply, depending on the circumstances.
Moran said the rule would apply to anything with a scent. Bears are attracted to sunscreen and lip balm, for example, she said.
Similar special orders already have been approved by the Medicine Bow-Routt, Pike-San Isabel and Rio Grande National Forests in Colorado.
Forest Service officials said the rule is necessary for the safety of campers and to avoid euthanizing bruins. Bears must learn that food isn’t available at campgrounds.
“If they don’t get an award, they quit coming back,” Fitzwilliams said.
“We started at Difficult (campground) because Difficult is bear central.”
Martha Moran, Forest Service