Are there too many black bears? | AspenTimes.com

Are there too many black bears?

Joel Stonington
Aspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” A record-breaking year for bear activity is finally winding down, but the number of human-bear interactions is sparking a conversation about thinning the bruin population, state Division of Wildlife officials said Wednesday.

“We’re talking about, biologically, if development, human population growth, recreation use and energy use have reduced bear habitat to the point where we need to reduce the bear population in the state of Colorado,” said Wildlife Division spokesman Randy Hampton.

This year might break state records. It certainly did so in Pitkin County, where 13 bears were euthanized, 24 relocated and four cubs were taken to a rehabilitation center.

“It’s a record year for relocations, cubs taken to the rehabilitation center, road kill, bears that we had to put down, all of those things,” Hampton said. “It was ” I say was ” I’m hoping it has passed, it was a tough year.”

The possibility of thinning the bear population or of increasing the number of bear hunting permits, however, has some locals and state environmental groups worried.

“It’s upsetting news,” said Holly Tarry, state director for the Humane Society. “Black bear populations manage themselves based on the resources that are available to them. Keeping them out of human areas is a human responsibility. We’re very disappointed that thinning would be an option.”

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Hampton said the Division of Wildlife has been pushing education efforts regarding trash, and he praised local lawmakers for increasing fines for bear-related violations. However, he doesn’t believe the education and enforcement efforts have been successful enough.

“[Aspen has] such a transient population, in terms of people who come for a week and leave,” Hampton said. “We have tourists who are not used to living in those communities. There are challenges to exerting that kind of [educational] effort.”

The wildlife agency is running out of places to relocate bears after such an intense summer, and different interest groups are pushing in many different directions. Hampton said ranchers are pressuring the DOW to kill more bears, while Tarry said the solution is in ramping up enforcement and education instead of putting money into efforts like thinning or beefing up the hunting season.

“If it were just managing bears, it would be easy, but people play such a role in this,” Hampton said. “Managing people and wildlife is one heck of a challenge.”

Aspen’s low spring moisture and late spring frosts made for a low supply of natural food for bears, leading many bruins into the community to wreak havoc on trash cans, cars, houses and a few residents.

Some areas, such as Colorado Springs and Pueblo, had good moisture in the spring and ended up with regular to low numbers of bear calls. The bear problems in Aspen, Pitkin County and other Western Slope areas were severe enough to drive the state average toward record-breaking numbers.

Bears were a major safety concern in the upper valley. Aspen community safety officers say they spent roughly a third of their time this summer dealing with bear problems. For example, there were 435 calls to 911 between July 30 and Oct. 24 for bear-related issues.

“There were a lot of bears just being bears,” said Melissa Clare, a community safety officer with the Aspen police.

It was when the bears get into trash cans, houses and cars, however, that things got dangerous for people and officers. A bear charged Clare during the summer after she fired a beanbag at it after it had entered a house. When she fired a second round at the charging bear, it turned and ran away.

Two upper valley residents were not as lucky: A bear entered Judith Garrison’s Aspen condo about 1:30 a.m. Oct. 17. The woman surprised the bear in the kitchen, and it clawed her in the face, causing serious injuries. On Oct. 11, a bear attacked 71-year-old John Clark in his garage on East Sopris Creek in Snowmass.

The DOW tracked down and killed the bears that attacked Garrison and Clark.

“There are still a couple of bears roaming around,” Hampton said. “It’s going to take another good snowfall or two to fully convince them to head for their dens. It’s the older male bears who are out there. Most of the sows and cubs have headed for the dens.”

Though some of those older male bears have been known to stay out all winter, most are now hibernating for the winter. He said it’s unclear at this point whether bears will die of starvation during the winter, though it is a concern.

The biggest concern for the DOW, however, is getting this difficult bear season over with.

“For the sake of the bears and the sake of the Aspen Skiing Co., the sooner the snow flies the better,” Hampton said. “We’re just as anxious for snow as everyone else. We’d like to put the bears away for the winter.”

Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com.