Aspen-area wildlife losing a prime advocate in Kevin Wright
Wildlife in the Roaring Fork Valley is losing one of its top advocates from over the past three decades.
Kevin Wright will leave his post as district wildlife manager for the Aspen District at the end of April. He worked for 31 years with the Division of Wildlife and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as the agency is now known. He worked 15 years as the wildlife manager in the Carbondale district and 16 years in the Aspen district.
Wright crawled into bear dens to help place collars on hibernating bruins. He schlepped fingerling trout in a backpack up incredibly steep slopes to stock high mountain ponds. He once hopped out of a helicopter when only the skid was touching the top of a cliff so he could help a co-worker wrestle a collar on a struggling bighorn ram. He got kicked and bashed by any number of elk while helping place collars on them.
“It’s been a good run. I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Wright said. “It’s been a dream job.”
Unfortunately, that dream job has an occasional nightmare. With increasing frequency over the years, Wright has been required to put down a bear. It has never gotten any easier, he said, and it’s something he deplores. It particularly irks him that human behavior almost always got the bear in trouble.
“The bear conflicts have skyrocketed over the years,” Wright said.
There are more bears and more people, so some conflicts are inevitable, Wright said, but lack of effort to secure trash and other food sources that attract bears is an ongoing problem.
“To be honest, there are people not caring, community leaders not caring,” he said.
Aspen has had a bear ordinance on the books for 15 years, but the rules are “not being followed,” he said.
“There are plenty of communities that take a more aggressive stance,” he said.
Aspen doesn’t do enough to make sure commercial dumpsters, residential trash cans and construction-waste containers are secured, he contended. The only reason a bear will hangout in downtown Aspen is because it can get trash, he said.
Wright has been blunt with his criticism of part of the city’s own inventory of trashcans in the downtown core. The manufacturer billed them as bear-resistant. Wright said they are inadequate. The city is relenting and replacing them.
A bear study commissioned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife on bear conflicts in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley concluded that education doesn’t work. Enforcement of rules is the only way to gain compliance, according to Wright.
Bears are highly intelligent animals and provided one of the highlights of his career. There is nothing like popping into a den and finding a hibernating mother with new cubs — “4 to 6 pound little fur balls” that cuddle up to a person because they haven’t developed a fear of humans yet.
Wright grew up in corn country in north central Iowa. He hunted, fished, canoed and participated in Boy Scouts. The outdoors were important to him, and Wright realized he wanted to be a wildlife officer.
“I had my mind made up halfway through high school,” he said.
He got his undergraduate degree at Iowa State University and his master’s degree at Colorado State University. He trained with the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Carbondale and got stationed there when he was hired after college.
It’s kept him in the outdoors that he loves so much.
“The job — it’s a way of life. It’s not just a job,” he said.
He had a chance to move from the Carbondale district to the Aspen district when longtime wildlife officer Randy Cote retired. He jumped at the opportunity.
“I just loved the backcountry up there a lot. It’s something I live for,” he said.
The positive part of the job was working with all types of big game and trying to help them thrive through education of humans or intervention with the animals. But working with big game is a double-edged sword. He also has a front-row seat to the pressures they face.
“Relentless recreation pressure” has fragmented habitat, he said. People are skiing, hiking with dogs and riding super-fat-tired bikes into winter range — placing undue stress on elk and deer that need to conserve fat to survive the winter. Reproduction rates aren’t at the level they should be. He believes human activity plays into that.
“To me, what I’ve seen in the valley, it’s recreation at all costs,” Wright said.
He understands the desire to get into the backcountry. What he doesn’t understand is the insatiable demand for more trails. Wright is extremely proud of being the voice that always spoke up for the needs of wildlife.
Wright, 57, doesn’t have any plans for the future, other than a trip to Kodiak, Alaska, in August. He is uncertain if he will remain in the Roaring Fork Valley, though he has deep roots here.
“When you live in the valley this long, you develop a lot of relationships,” Wright said. And few are stronger than his bonds with wildlife.
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The Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission voted this week to open the tract of land near Aspen for mountain lion hunting.