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Bear agression on the rise at Pitkin County campgrounds

Michael McLaughlin
Special to The Aspen Times
Contributed photo

When Caren Austin and her husband arrived last week at Difficult Campground, they were prepared to enjoy a weekend of outdoor activities. Instead of relaxing around the campfire and taking a few casual hikes, Austin spent most of her four-day vacation worrying about bears.

“Personally, I just didn’t have that much fun,” Austin said. “I was too paranoid about bear-proofing everything. I felt like I was on edge at all times.”

Austin, who lives in Arvada near Denver, never saw a bear, but heard them on several occasions. A bear tried to break into a car less than 30 feet from the Austin campsite, and set the car alarm off five times in one evening. The next day, a large black bear broke into a car in the Difficult day-use parking lot with several people watching. The bear bent a door and broke a window before leaving the lot with a bag of marshmallows in its mouth.

“If we come back to Aspen next summer, I doubt we’ll be camping,” Austin said. “We’ll be in a hotel or staying at a friend’s house.”

For the past month, there have been multiple bear sightings at the Difficult Campground, as well as several surrounding campsites. Weller Campground is close to Difficult and had to be closed from June 15 through June 22 so the Forest Service could fix and secure the bear-proof dumpsters at the campground.

With the Fourth of July only a week away, most local campgrounds are expected to be full for the holiday weekend. Local authorities are working to inform the public that dealing with bears is serious business and caution has to be taken at every level.

On June 2, a federal regulation was put into effect regarding the White River National Forest, stating that possessing or storing food/refuse anywhere except in bear-resistant containers or inside vehicles in sealed containers is prohibited.

People who don’t follow these guidelines will be subject of fines up to $5,000.

The regulation stays in effect through Oct. 15 or until rescinded, whichever occurs first.

Diane and Roy Schoepf are the Difficult Campground hosts. The Schoepfs give every camper a “bear talk,” as well as give each campsite literature on dealing with bears in the wild. Diane Schoepf said they believe they’ve been dealing with the same black bear since May. She also made a point of saying that everyone who sees this bear describes it as very large to huge.

“People need to remember that black bears are smart, wild and very strong,” Schoepf said. “The bear we’ve been seeing pushed over all four of our bear-proof dumpsters on one visit. They’re fearless and can do a lot of damage if they want.”

Just recently, Roy Schoepf was driving down Highway 82 toward Aspen from Difficult when he saw the familiar bear sauntering down the middle of the highway. Schoepf honked his horn and got the bear to leave the highway, but as he drove away, he saw the bear return to his walk down the middle of the road.

There is a bear trap in operation at the entrance to Difficult. It’s been set since Monday — with no success.

Colorado has a “two-strike” policy under which bears may be tranquilized, ear-tagged and relocated once if they are in an inappropriate location or they have engaged in episode(s) of “nuisance” behavior. If that same bear has to be physically dealt with again (tranquilized or trapped due to inappropriate location or nuisance behavior), the bear is put down. Bears that pose a public safety risk will be put down regardless of whether they have ear tags or not.

“It makes me sick to think of a bear having to be put down,” said Diane Schoepf. “But they are territorial and get into a habit of returning to where they find food.”

Phil Nyland, a wildlife biologist with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the Forest Service, said it’s extremely important to educate the public about proper human behavior around bears, both at campgrounds and in the surrounding Aspen area.

Nyland said there have been reports of moderate to very aggressive bear behavior locally since Memorial Day. He said there have been at least four car break-ins in designated camping areas and also said a group of seven campers were charged by a black bear. The bear broke off the charge before reaching the group of campers.

While it’s unusual for a bear to be breaking into cars, Nyland and others believe bears learn bad behavior when they frequent areas like Aspen, then return to the wilderness and use their new eating skills in areas like Difficult Campground.

“We’re working on informing the public as much as possible about staying safe in the wilderness.” Nyland said. “Right now, we’re seeing a lot of behaviors we don’t want to see in the local bears and need to reduce this recipe for negative encounters.”


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