A bear of a problem in Aspen
September 11, 2009
ASPEN – The status quo clearly isn’t working, so the Colorado Division of Wildlife is going back to the drawing board for solutions to Aspen’s ongoing problem with hungry black bears.In recent years, the Aspen area has become ground zero for bears foraging for human food, which has put the Division of Wildlife in a frustrating position to find solutions. Garbage and other food sources left out by homeowners, visitors and business owners are partly to blame, along with the fact that Aspen is situated in prime bear habitat.Compounding matters is that plentiful rainfall this year has damaged bears’ main natural food source – berries – and sent them scavenging for food in a town abundant in Epicurean smells.What to do about it? And what’s next for the bears? These questions plague wildlife officials, who have come under fire from the public for enforcing the agency’s “two strikes” nuisance policy, which calls for relocating a bear after its first infraction, and killing it the second time it breaks into garbage cans or homes.Aspen has gained state and national attention for its increasing bruin problem, which has led to hundreds of calls to police and dozens of break-ins this summer. One bear entered a home through locked French doors and clawed a woman. Two weeks ago, a sleeping woman was scratched by a bear on her deck. Both bears were later killed by DOW officers.On Thursday, Sept. 10, a 69-year-old man was attacked in his home in the Meadowood subdivision after a bear entered through the front door. He was transported to Aspen Valley Hospital with superficial wounds to his face. DOW officers have set a trap on the property and plan to kill the bear.Offending or aggressive bears are treated like criminals, not unlike a human being who attacks someone or breaks into a house – they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. For bears with more than one infraction, that means death.”Unfortunately, we are giving bears a lot of slack,” said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton. “But we are as an agency cognizant that the word ‘attack’ can cause concern … they are not aggressive animals.”Summer 2009 appears to be shaping up as the worst season on record – the DOW has had to kill 11 “problem” bears between Basalt and Aspen this summer. Officials are bracing for more aggressive bear behavior in the next two months as the animals prepare for hibernation.In the very near term, at least, it appears the bear problem has subsided. A few weeks ago, calls to the Aspen Police Department were running between 20 and 25 per night; now it averages about four, according to Hampton. He attributes the decline to the DOW either euthanizing or relocating the offending bears.”We got very aggressive last week on the ground clearing out the bears … I bet we relocated seven last week,” Hampton said, adding at least 20 bears have been moved out of Aspen this season.What makes 2009 hard to understand is that, Hampton said, there was not a “full natural food failure.” Bears have learned that they don’t need to forage in the woods because they can simply open locked trash bins or pry open windows to raid refrigerators. Hampton believes there are at least two generations of bears in the Aspen area that have learned in previous years to search out human food when their natural sources are not as plentiful.”This year has been very different,” he said. “In the past, every five to seven years there was a food failure … now it’s every other year.”In 2007, bears ran rampant around Aspen and 13 of them were killed by the DOW. During that year, a late frost in June devastated the berry crop, and the extremely dry, hot conditions killed chances for a healthy fall crop of acorns that bears use to fatten up for winter. In 2005 as well, a lack of natural foods drove bear families into Aspen in great numbers.”2009 has changed the equation a bit because the bears were habituated in 2005 and 2007, and it’s proved that they have learned,” Hampton said, adding that more development has pushed bears out of their habitat and into town.There are several factors to explain all the bears in the area, Hampton said, and they all work in combination. The fact that thousands of people and their trash inhabit Aspen doesn’t help matters, he added.Last month, beleaguered DOW officers asked the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to shoot and kill aggressive black bears that break into buildings or pose a threat to humans if a wildlife officer is unavailable. The unprecedented move illustrates that the DOW can no longer handle all of Aspen’s bear activity. On Sept. 10, the very day that the 69-year-old man was scratched by a bear in his home, the APD announced guidelines under which officers with specific training may shoot bears – when a specific, identifiable “repeat offender” is located and the DOW has requested that it be killed; when a particular, identifiable bear enters a residence and injures a human and the DOW requests its euthanization; and at the officer’s discretion in any life-threatening situation. The policy anticipates that officers, if faced with killing a bear, will call the Sheriff’s Office first, because deputies are equipped with shotguns, the preferred weapon for bears.
Once the activity levels die down and the bruins go to sleep for the winter, DOW officials will begin discussing new policies to address Aspen’s black bear population.”The things we have in place are not working,” Hampton said. “But our policies and community ordinances do work at some level.”Educating the public about having bear-proof containers and eliminating food sources will continue to be a focal point. The DOW also will continue relocating and euthanizing habituated bears.The DOW already increased the number of licenses it will sell to hunters for this bear season, which began Sept. 2. The wildlife division sold 585 licenses in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys last year. That will increase by 45 licenses, or 7.5 percent, to 630 this year.Up for discussion is a proposal to issue even more fall bear-hunting licenses in order to control the bear population around Aspen. Hunting is already a key population-control tool for elk and deer, which have fewer natural predators than they did historically.Before the DOW allows still more licenses, it wants a better handle on the actual Aspen-area bear population. The agency is working with Colorado State University to study the habits of bears in Aspen and how many there might be. It’s possible to estimate how many bears live in an area based on what hunters bring back, specifically numbers of females.The DOW also uses hair snares, which are laced with smells that attract bears; the barbed wire snags their hair, and scientists collect and send it to the lab. In the root of each collected hair is enough DNA to identify species, individuals and sex. “If all the research comes together and the population is higher than what the habitat can support, we’ll issue more hunting licenses,” Hampton said. “Everything is on the table as we sit down in the discussions.”We have to discuss what we can control as a government agency.”email@example.com
By Perry Will
This summer’s headlines have been chock-full of bears getting into trouble with people. It’s not a new problem, and it won’t go away until all Coloradans learn that a fed bear is a problem bear – everyone’s problem. Predictably, some people are again advocating for the Division of Wildlife to set up feeding stations, drop dog food from helicopters or place restaurant waste food into the woods to keep bears from coming to town searching for food. We understand people’s desire to protect wildlife, but we need to emphasize that trying to manage bears by feeding them is ineffective, biologically misguided and ultimately self-defeating. Feeding upsets natural reproductive dynamics. A program of sustained feeding would cause bear populations to artificially rise because plentiful food leads to higher reproduction. It’s important to understand that while bears can have a hard time finding enough natural food in some years, this year that is not the case. But evolution has primed bears to be extremely opportunistic feeders – they’ll take easy food every chance they get. Unfortunately, there’s been plenty of easy people-food for bears to find this year. Whether it’s trash, bird feeders, barbecue grills, pet food or abundant crabapple trees, bears have adapted to a new supply chain of food. As long as human food is available, bears will chow down every chance they get. Placing food in areas outside of town would feed bears that are already in those areas. This would provide human food for bears that are already surviving off of natural food sources. The bears that are in town being fed by careless trash disposal could stay in town and eat. Without eliminating human food sources, urban bears would have little reason to look elsewhere. Bears aren’t herd animals. They don’t like to eat together like deer or elk. Providing feeding areas for bears would only feed the biggest, oldest and strongest bears. Yearling bears and cubs that are most susceptible to starvation would merely be lured into confrontations with bigger bears. If it turns out that the available bear habitat in western Colorado cannot support current bear populations because of reoccurring drought, rapid human population growth, expanding recreational use of public lands and booming energy development, the bear population may need to decrease. Over time, food shortages because of lost habitat and warming temperatures will reduce the bear population by reducing breeding success. Artificially feeding bears could actually inflate bear numbers well beyond the area’s carrying capacity. The DOW consistently seeks out and evaluates new ideas about bear management, particularly in urban areas. An ongoing study in Aspen and Glenwood Springs with Colorado State University and the National Wildlife Research Center will hopefully give us some new approaches to managing urban bears when the initial study is completed later this year. History shows that a bear’s dependence on human food can eventually lead to aggressive behavior. That’s why the DOW has to kill repeat nuisance offenders and any bear that shows aggression towards people. We don’t like to kill bears. It is one of the hard parts about being wildlife managers. That said, it is part of our job and to protect people we’ll continue to do our job. The evidence is clear – fed bears become bold bears. Bold bears inevitably become a threat to people.We’ll also continue our never-ending plea for assistance from you, the people who can make a difference. The needless deaths of Colorado bears can be avoided by all citizens working together to help bear-proof all homes in bear habitat. Make changes at your home, remind your neighbors as well – take down bird feeders until winter, keep garbage in, clean outdoor grills and eating areas with ammonia and close up and lock all entry points to garages, homes and vehicles.The DOW spends thousands of hours every year educating Coloradans about living with bears. We implore you to remove attractants that entice bears to come to homes. But please understand: The DOW is also compelled by law to protect public safety. When human behavior creates a problem bear, that problem bear will be removed. There is no question that we all have a responsibility to manage for healthy bear populations. But feeding bears is precisely the problem, not the solution.
Perry Will is the area wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife in Glenwood Springs. He oversees district wildlife managers in Pitkin, Eagle and eastern Garfield counties.
Relocations: 22 bears have been moved from the Aspen area to as far away as Canon City and Brown’s Park. Four cubs have been sent to rehabilitators. Killings: 11 bears have been killed by the Division of Wildlife in the Aspen-Basalt area.July 9: Female bear in Aspen, forcing her way into locked homes.July 10: Female bear in Aspen, breaking into locked homes.July 11: Male bear, east of Aspen, two-strike bear breaking into locked homes.July 16: Male bear in Aspen, breaking into locked homes and vehicles.July 26: Male bear in Aspen, breaking into locked homes. Aug. 19: Male bear, involved in attack on Aspen homeowner. Shot by DOW officer after avoiding a trap.Aug. 21: A female bear in Basalt, multiple-strike bear had already been relocated. She was euthanized and her cubs were taken to a rehabilitation center.Aug. 31: Female bear involved in incident with Aspen homeowner who was sleeping on deck.Aug. 31: Male bear, breaking into locked homes.Sept. 3: Female bear, breaking into locked homes in Brush Creek Village area.Sept. 5: Male bear, east of Aspen, breaking into locked homes. Note: When faced with a problem bear, DOW officers typically trap, tranquilize and then euthanize the animals. When certain animals elude capture, however, officers have shot them on sight.