Aspen Times Weekly: Bear with it

by Michael McLaughlin

Be bear aware

• In Colorado, black bears can be various shades of color, from black to brown to blonde.

• More than 90 percent of a black bear’s natural diet is grasses, berries, fruits, nuts and plants. The rest is primarily insects and scavenged carcasses.

• Black bears are wary of people and unfamiliar things. Normally, their response to danger is to run away.

• In Colorado, black bears are active from mid-March through early November. When food sources dwindle, they head for their winter dens.

• A black bear can smell food 5 miles away. Their nose is 100 times more sensitive than a human’s.

• Black bears have excellent memories. Once they find food, they continue coming back to that location for more.

• During late-summer and early-fall, black bears can require up to 20,000 calories per day to gain enough weight to hibernate through the winter without food or water.

• Black bears aren’t naturally nocturnal, but frequently travel at night to avoid human interaction.

If you encounter a bear in town, remember to:

Stay calm and don’t run.

Back away slowly.

Avoid eye contact.

Never feed a bear.

Leave cubs alone.

Keep pets on leash.

Do not gather around.

Fight back if attacked.

It comes as no surprise that black bears are being sighted consistently in Aspen again this summer. That happens when you’re located in the middle of the Rocky Mountains at ground zero for the local black bear population.

In Aspen, bear-sighting numbers correlate with the amount of natural food available to the bears. It’s pretty simple: if there’s natural food, the bears have no need to access human garbage, but if that food supply is off, the bears know where to go for other free food options.

This year in the Aspen area, the natural-food supplies are spotty if best.

According to Jonathan Lowsky, the principal wildlife biologist with Colorado Wildlife Science, three of the main late-summer and fall staples for local black bears are chokecherries, serviceberries and acorn nuts.

“The bears should be eating the berries right now, but those crops are poor at best,” Lowsky said. “There should be a good fall crop of acorns and that’s crucial for the bears as they prepare for hyperphagia.”

In the meantime, many bears know there’s food around town, as evidenced by their persistence. They’re also learning that there’s plenty of garbage downvalley, where there are no ordinances requiring bearproofing your trash.

In 2010, the city of Aspen adopted wildlife protection ordinances to deter bear and human conflicts. The ordinances are under Aspen Municipal Code, Wildlife Protection, Chapter 12.08. The ordinances require the use of bearproof trash receptacles and set time limits for when residents can put their garbage out for pickup. Fines can reach up to $999 and a court appearance.

Lowsky said when the natural bear food is low, nature takes over and lowers the bear population to equal the food supply.

“That might mean the older and sick bears pass away, which is fine,” Lowsky said. “It’s nature’s way of self-regulating the bear population. But when the bears find garbage and other human foods, it artificially supports a larger bear population and puts a lot of stress on the natural food supplies. That’s another reason why people need to be more consistent with bearproofing their trash.”

In 2012, the Aspen Police Department received a record 1,040 bear calls, yet fewer bears were relocated (one) or euthanized (two) in Aspen proper than in previous years. There were also significantly fewer trash violations, especially in the residential areas of town.

In contrast, the Aspen Police Department received 52 bear-related calls during 2013. The significant drop in bear encounters was attributed to a year rich in natural food sources in the high country, as well as increased local bear awareness.

In August 2013, the Aspen Police Department received four bear-sighting calls. This year, there were 209.

In 2014, the number of bear encounters outside of Aspen in the Roaring Fork Valley has also increased. “I understand the downvalley problem with bears is as bad, if not worse, than upvalley,” said Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Ranger John Armstrong.

When Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson was asked if there’s been a spike in local bear sightings this year, he said that was a distinct understatement.

“It’s been a very prolific year for bear sightings in the Glenwood Springs area,” Wilson said. “For the past month, our daily reports always seem to include the fact that there were too many bear sightings to get to.”

Armstrong agreed with Lowsky’s observations and said he’s only seen maybe 10 percent of the usual amount of serviceberries.

Armstrong said it appears the bears are looking for other food sources already.

“Up on Smuggler Mountain, I’ve never seen so many torn up logs,” he said. “The bears will rip apart logs looking for bugs.”

Lowsky said that as the leaves begin to change colors locally, it’s a sign the bears will need to begin preparation for hibernation. At that time, an adult bear generally needs to add between 10,000 and 20,000 calories a day, and for a lactating or pregnant female bear, they’ll need even more calories.

Armstrong said he’s seen a noticeable increase in the black bear population since bear-hunting restrictions were added about 15 years ago.

“I didn’t like the way the bears were hunted or the use of baiting and hunting with dogs, which is illegal now in Colorado,” Armstrong said. “But I also don’t like seeing wild animals reduced to garbage scavengers. It’s a shame to see such a beautiful species reduced to that.”

For Blair Weyer, the public information specialist for the Aspen Police Department, the goal now is to keep bear and human encounters to a minimum. If there are encounters, she wants to make sure the public knows how to react.

Weyer said the biggest safety concerns happen when a bear gets put into an unnatural situation where it feels trapped or threatened. An incident this past July hit close to home for Weyer when Erin Smiddy, an off-duty Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy, was injured by a black bear she startled that was Dumpster-diving in an alley in Aspen.

She said it’s critical that the public remain diligent about keeping trash away from the bears. Weyer also wants local businesses to be more responsible about securing their trash — or they will be cited.

“It’s not just for our safety,” Weyer said. “It’s also for the bears. Fortunately, the officer that was injured earlier this year is fine. We don’t want the bear situation to get to the point of something tragic happening.”

When a bear has a physical encounter with a human, it will be euthanized if caught.

Lowsky said there has been only two documented human fatalities caused by a black bear in Colorado in the past 100 years. He said humans aren’t on the black bear’s menu.

“For the most part, a black bear isn’t dangerous, unless cornered or threatened,” he said. “As long as a bear has an escape route, there shouldn’t be a problem. When a bear is cornered, it’ll do what’s necessary to get free. If you see a bear coming at you, step aside and let it go by.”

Armstrong said bear education is readily available but isn’t sure everyone is taking it seriously.

“The fact that a bear’s life depends on it should require some level of seriousness,” he said.

Following are a few bear-encounter stories that highlight these points.

Fat Albert

“About 10 years ago, I had been out of town on a ski trip to South America. The night before I came home, a particular bear had been in my house and had been sleeping in my guest bed. He also left a steaming present for us. The bear had ripped my sliding glass door out. That bear was really big, maybe 500 pounds, and was nicknamed ‘Fat Albert.’ I was hoping he wouldn’t come back, but he did. He assumed it was his house. (Note: An accident in 1982 left Isaac paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.) I was in my bed and around midnight, woke up because I could hear the bear cleaning out my refrigerator. I have an intercom and called my helpers, but funny enough, they didn’t respond. I’m lying in bed and can hear Fat Albert walking down the hall towards me. I could hear his nails clicking on the floor, getting closer and closer to my room. I guess he was looking for whatever tidbits he could find. All I could think was, ‘I’m screwed.’ There wasn’t anything I could do and I knew it was a real big bear. I could hear him breathing in my room. It was like a horror movie. I was facing away from the door and couldn’t turn around or get out. Fortunately, the bear left. The next day I got up and everything was pretty much trashed. He pulled the refrigerator apart. I called the wildlife guys because I didn’t know what to do. I came into work that day and got a call saying, ‘He’s back!’ for the third day in a row. One of the wildlife guys went to my house and saw the bear had cleaned out any remaining food in the refrigerator. The bear was lying on the floor in the dining room, under the table, sleeping. The wildlife guy couldn’t wake the bear up. He had to kick him. He didn’t want to shoot the bear because he figured the bear would go ballistic and finish the house off. Finally, Fat Albert got up and wandered off. He didn’t like being kicked so much. He was known around the neighborhood because he had really been casing the whole east end of town. He was so big — nobody was going to challenge him. The wildlife guys asked me if I wanted the bear euthanized, but I didn’t want any part of that. Unfortunately, Fat Albert eventually had to be put down. He had stuck his head in a house where there were some little kids. They realized that even though he really hasn’t done anything threatening to people, he was a menace. I basically like our bears. You just have to be careful not to threaten them.”

– Tom Isaac, Pitkin County Assessor

Winnie the Pooper

Two weeks ago, the Snow Queen Victorian Bed & Breakfast had guest that was a little too eager to enjoy the accommodations at the lodge on East Cooper Avenue.

Around 4 a.m., a large bear pushed open the unlatched front door and went to the kitchen for a meal. The bear got into some cupboards, then found the larger of two kitchen refrigerators.

“The bear had a feast,” said Marget Baker, the innkeeper at the lodge. “It took the lid off the cream cheese and drank our half and half creamer. That bear pretty much sampled everything.”

As the bear helped itself to the second kitchen refrigerator, Baker, who sleeps above the kitchen, heard the commotion. When she looked through the kitchen door and saw the bear, it was literally 2 feet in front of her.

“I could see it and smell it,” Baker said. “I banged on the door to startle it, but it just snorted at me and slammed the door with its paw.”

That was enough for Baker, who ran upstairs, grabbed her cat and locked herself in the bathroom.

The bear continued to eat and also made several smelly bear poops. The bear walked through its feces and had poop all over its paws.

“There were poopy paw marks all over our counters,” Baker said. “There was black poop all over our curtains. It was tracked everywhere.”

As the bear looked for an exit, it ripped off the screen doorframe and part of the front doorframe, but didn’t open either door.

When the police arrived, the bear was lying on the floor grunting at them. The police opened the back and front doors, but the bear wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, the police used a beanbag gun to encourage the bear to leave.

The bear caused more than $1,200 worth of damage and left its smelly calling card throughout the lodge. A trap was put outside the lodge the next two nights, but the bear ignored it and tried unsuccessfully to get back in the lodge.

“Now I latch every door here at night,” Baker said. “We named it, ‘Winnie the Pooper’ for obvious reasons. By the way, I saw another bear last week eating some pizza in our alley. It ate the toppings and left the crust. Only in Aspen …”

Buzzed Bears

In 2009, Bill Dinsmoor, the owner of the Main Street Bakery, had a couple of mother bears and cubs terrorizing the back of his establishment. The bears had broken into his walk-in freezer numerous times.

“They tore the door off my walk-in freezer,” Dinsmoor said. “I found out that the Fish and Wildlife people in Wyoming had success with an electric pad and they were dealing with some bigger bears up there. We were having problems late at night and it sounded like a good idea.”

When asked if the pad was effective, Dinsmoor had to chuckle.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The bears are a quick study and they didn’t like the pad. It worked perfectly and those bears didn’t come back.”

Guarding the Garbage

When general contractor Kirk Leintz visited the Pitkin County landfill on Aug. 23, he counted six bears hanging out at the garbage dropoff area. “A landfill employee was chasing the bears away with one of those crushing vehicles,” Leintz said. “He was trying to open a window of opportunity to drop off our garbage. He would move one bear and another would just move in and take its place.”

Finally, the bears were moved away from the front of the dropoff area, but the largest of the bears was still hanging out about 10 feet from Leintz’s car.

“A landfill employee told me to get out of my car and drop off my garbage,” Leintz said. “I told him, ‘No way, that bear is going to eat me,’ and I left with my garbage still in the car.”

Bear Blotter

The following two stories come from Aspen Police officers, courtesy of Blair Weyer, community relations specialist for the Aspen Police Department. Both incidents happened several years ago in the Aspen area:

“A very large bear once ate between 2 and 5 pounds of cocoa mix. It gave the bear a nasty stomach ache, and it laid around for quite sometime before Colorado Parks & Wildlife were able get there to relocate the bear. Unfortunately, they didn’t get there quite quick enough and the bear wasn’t able to keep down the cocoa mix…I’ll let you fill in the blanks.”

“Two patrol officers were dispatched to a home with a bear reported inside. As the officers were clearing the home, one walked downstairs into an entertainment room. He rounded a corner and immediately came face to face with a full-sized snarling stuffed grizzly bear standing on its hind legs with its paws up. The officer quickly retreated bumping into his partner. The stuffed bear narrowly escaped fate that day, as did the black bear, which was nowhere to be found by the time officers arrived.”

Branching Out

“Recently in Aspen, I actually had to yell at a drunk that was getting right under a small tree a bear was in. The drunk was about to shake the tree. Worse, he was trying to get his girlfriend closer in with him. What a gentleman. If the bear fell out of the tree it could have squashed the guy and hurt the bear. This would have been one angry wild animal in a mall full of people.

The fix is easy and it’s all on us. Residents should put their trash out the morning of pickup and use the latches. Restaurants, this is BIG because great food makes great and smelly trash. Last person out needs to be trained, drilled and checked on that they close and secure dumpsters. Bars and restaurants open late need to secure dumpsters before closing. No trash or spilled food on the ground. If your Dumpsters cannot be secured and/or are not bearproof, get that remedied ASAP. If the garbage won’t all fit, keep it inside.

City government, please get out there and check the alleys and neighborhoods. Some establishments will need warnings and maybe a fine or two to get with the program.

The bears love the garbage, hence the problems. People seem to think it can’t be helped. That’s a huge cop out.

There’s also the crabapple trees. A good friend told me that in Snowmass Village they used some kind of spray on the crabapple trees to prevent the blossoms from bearing fruit. Not sure what the environmental fallout of that is, but it’s an interesting idea as a stopgap to planting something else. I’ve also seen crabapple trees online that have beautiful blossoms but won’t produce fruit. That sounds like a win-win situation.”

-Peter Grannis, Aspen