Ample food is good news for Aspen area bears this year; sightings, interactions are way down from 2017
Despite this summer’s drought, the backcountry is providing plenty of food for bears, which so far has led to a fraction of the number of bear-human interactions that Aspen and Pitkin County experienced last year, officials said this week.
And while the fall generally accounts for the highest number of bear calls received by law enforcement as the animals ramp up their calorie intake for winter hibernation, officials are confident that abundant food sources and greater emphasis on trash disposal should keep this fall far quieter than last.
“I think it’s looking really good,” Kurtis Tesch, Roaring Fork Valley wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said Wednesday. “(Food sources) near water seem to be looking pretty good.”
A hard freeze in late spring last year destroyed many of the bears food sources, including service berries, choke cherries and acorns, Tesch said. Acorns in particular were a huge loss because they ripen in the fall and provide much of the bears winter food source, he said.
The lack of food last year forced the animals into populated areas, which frequently led them to break into homes and cars throughout the valley.
Bears also were a frequent sight on the streets of Aspen, beginning about this time last year and continuing through the fall. A mother and her two cubs moved into large blue spruce trees outside the Pitkin County Courthouse for a time. A mother and two cubs also spent several days in a large tree on the Hyman Avenue mall, which led tourists to crowd around in search of selfies while police futilely attempted to keep control of the situation.
At one point, the Hyman mall mother and cubs became separated after tourists chased them. Finally, CPW officers shot the three bears with tranquilizers and relocated them to the Utah border.
The city of Aspen responded to 277 bear calls between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 2017, according to Cathleen Treacy, Aspen police records specialist. Officers responded to 214 bear calls in September and 113 in October, she said.
This year — through Wednesday — the city had received a total of 43 bear calls, Treacy said.
Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies responded to 138 bear calls between Jan. 1 and Aug. 22, 2017, said Charles Matthews, records manager for the Sheriff’s Office. This year, the agency has received 65 bear calls so far, he said.
In Snowmass Village, officers received 131 bear calls between Jan. 1 and Aug. 22, 2017, and just 65 this year, said the records manager for the Snowmass Village Police Department.
Tesch and other wildlife officers euthanized 18 bears in 2017 and relocated four. This year, he said he hasn’t even set a bear trap in the Roaring Fork Valley yet.
“It’s been a nice, quiet summer,” Tesch said.
CPW has received some reports of bear sightings and bears breaking into homes through open windows, but nothing like last year, he said. He estimated his agency has received a bear call a day this year, down from about a dozen a day last year.
In fact, problems with other wildlife — such as moose and mountain lions — also have been few and far between this year, Tesch said.
Wildlife had enough time to escape the Lake Christine Fire — numerous deer and elk were seen crossing Highway 82 to get clear of the flames — and some animals are even returning to green meadows that didn’t burn, he said.
In a couple years when the burned areas green up, they will be ideal habitat for wildlife because the lack of a canopy will allow more grass to grow, Tesch said.
While the availability of food is the major difference, Tesch also credited an effort by Aspen police to ensure proper trash disposal by restaurants and residents for decreasing the number of bear-human issues.
Ginna Gordon, an APD community response officer, said she and her colleagues met with representatives from 120 Aspen restaurants before the summer season to ensure they appropriately stored garbage in downtown alleys. They also reached out to property management companies so out-of-town visitors would receive similar instructions, she said.
“It’s absolutely made a difference,” Gordon said. “I think it’s been really effective.”
Editor’s note: The number of bear calls in Snowmass Village for this year was originally reported as 35. The story has since been updated to reflect the correct number of bear calls this year, which is 65.
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has tested positive for the coronavirus. Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, both have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic, the governor said in a statement Saturday night.