Bears, students avoid disaster | AspenTimes.com

Bears, students avoid disaster

Human conflicts with bears have been few and far between lately, but disaster was narrowly averted in Basalt last week thanks to quick thinking by adult animals of both species.

The town of Basalt public works department was alerted at midafternoon Sept. 23 of a sow black bear and her cubs roaming around the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park. Department employees headed downtown to keep an eye on the bruins and spotted them a short time later wading up the Fryingpan River, according to Robi Darcy, administrative assistant and jill-of-all-trades for the department.

The bears encountered water deep enough that they had to get out when they reached the vicinity of a famous landmark called the Swinging Bridge. They came up the bank and were rounding a corner just about the same time that Basalt Elementary School was finished with classes for the day.

The first wave of school kids were walking down the dirt path that leads from Cottonwood Lane to the Swinging Bridge. The bridge is a popular route home for kids and is a shortcut to the downtown area.

Darcy and other public works employees, including head of streets Bob Byram, saw that a handful of kids and the bear family were on a collision course, although the bears and kids couldn’t see one another at that time.

“It had the potential to be really bad,” Darcy said. “We didn’t want to tell them to run” because that could have spurred an unpredictable reaction from the bears.

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Each of the three cubs was the size of a large dog. The cubs and the mom were the same color of dark brown, Darcy said.

As the animals came closer to one another Byram calmly directed the kids to turn around, but they didn’t comprehend at first what he was instructing. The kids finally spotted the bears from a safe distance away and, after being frozen for a few moments, found a gap in a nearby fence and ducked around it, Darcy said.

The mother bear started to rear up when she first saw the kids but her actions couldn’t be considered aggressive, according to Darcy.

Other kids were prevented from walking down the path from the school by Dean Everding, the police department’s school resource officer. An alert parent also relieved community safety officer Jeni Newcomb of her crossing guard duties at a nearby intersection so she could help corral kids and herd bears.

Darcy said the bears escaped the commotion by wandering through back yards in the River Cove neighborhood, along the Fryingpan River. The bears crossed the Pueblo Bridge, on the outskirts of downtown, then headed up the Fryingpan River corridor.

When spotters reported that the bears were a safe distance away, the kids were sent on their merry way. Darcy said one little boy who had ducked behind the fence didn’t want to move for a while after the frightening experience.

“I’m thinking Bob is the hero in all of this,” Darcy said. “Knowing him, he would have gone up to the bears if the kids were in danger.”

Colorado Division of Wildlife officials couldn’t be reached Monday for comment about bear activity in the region. They have previously noted that the lack of a late frost and somewhat consistent rain this spring and summer produced an abundant berry crop, as any backcountry hiker will attest.

Basalt Police Chief Keith Ikeda said there hadn’t been any bear encounters with humans that he was aware of this summer before this recent incident. There were numerous conflicts two years ago when frost and drought wiped out bears’ natural food sources. They resorted to trash and other sources provided by humans.

Like Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, Basalt has a bear ordinance in effect which requires people to keep their trash and other potential temptations secured.

Darcy said several trash containers were tipped over in the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park the same day that the bruins created the stir by the school.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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