Aspen’s bear debacle last year prompts strategy change for this summer
The out-of-control bear situation in Aspen last summer has the Police Department rethinking its bruin strategy this year.
Members of the department have submitted a municipal ordinance to the Aspen City Council that will include escalating fines for people who disturb wildlife should council members choose to approve it, said Audrey Radlinski, a community resource officer.
“The bears get punished in the way they get treated by people,” she said. “We need to try to create a balance to hold people accountable, too, and that’s where this ordinance will come in.”
The change in tactics comes as a direct result of an incident in mid-September on the Hyman Avenue mall involving a mother bear and her two cubs, Radlinski said.
The trio spent several days lounging in a large tree on the mall, attracting throngs of tourists and locals. One evening, the bears came down from the tree into a crowd of gawkers with cameras at the ready.
Many “insisted on trying to get close enough to take selfies,” one police officer said at the time. Other officers saw people placing small children near the bears to try to snap photos.
That spooked the bears, who tried to run away. Some in the crowd then chased the animals in an effort to obtain photos and video, which led the cubs to become separated from their mother, police said. Mom returned to the mall in an agitated state, making loud noises and growling, while police worked to control the gawkers who continued to get close to the bear for photos.
That was it for city police and state wildlife officials.
“It was a mess,” Kurtis Tesch, Aspen-area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said Friday. “Any time you separate a mom and her cubs, you’re looking for danger.”
The next day the bears returned again to the sturdy tree and Tesch and a colleague shot them with tranquilizers, removed them from the tree and transported the family to an area near the Colorado-Utah border.
“We were fortunate nobody got hurt,” Tesch said.
Radlinkski said people in the crowds ignored repeated pleas from officers to leave the area.
“We want people to have a good experience and take a picture and move along,” she said. “(But) people were not following instructions from police officers.
“It’s like herding cats.”
Bears were a big problem last year thanks to a cool spring that spawned a late freeze that, in turn, destroyed the berry and acorn crops, significant bear food sources, Tesch said. That was followed by a hot and dry June, he said.
The September incident followed months of bears breaking into homes and cars looking for food, lounging in trees outside the Pitkin County Courthouse eating crabapples and near-daily bear-human run-ins.
The Aspen Police Department responded to 913 bear calls last year, Radlinski said. State wildlife officials euthanized 16 bears in Pitkin County last year and relocated three bears, Tesch said. That compares with nine bears euthanized in 2016 and five euthanized in 2015, he said.
It’s too early to tell how this year’s bear food sources will turn out, Tesch said. And while it has been drier than average, he said he hopes the monsoons will kick in this summer and remedy that situation.
“We’re off to a good start,” Tesch said. “As long as we don’t get that late frost” the acorns and berries should form normally.
The new ordinance — which is essentially the same as a state law prohibiting wildlife harassment — will allow both officers and community resource officers to write offenders a $100 ticket for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and $500 and a mandatory Aspen Municipal Court appearance for the third offense.
In addition to the new ordinance, the Police Department will “collar” trees that bears like with a slick pad that prevents them from climbing, Radlinski said. They also will power-wash the blossoms off crabapple trees in town — in particular those in front of the courthouse — to prevent the formation of a bear food source, she said.
Officers also will continue to aggressively enforce both commercial and residential trash disposal and impose fines starting at $250 for the first offense when they find violations, Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said.
Also, the ordinance covers all wildlife, not just bears, Radlinski said. People interacting with moose and foxes also is a problem in Aspen, she said.
“A fox hangs around Local’s Corner and people feed it,” Radlinski said. “That’s bad for the fox and it could be bad for the people, too.”
Tesch said he’s all for the proposed ordinance.
“I think it’s going to be a real positive thing,” he said. “It’s never good to have people on the mall chasing bears down alleys to take pictures.”
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This summer the Aspen Music Festival is emphasizing this discovery track more than before, as the 2021 season marks the launch of its initiative to spotlight diverse composers who identify as AMELIA (African-American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian).