Bear issues force camping closure at Crater Lake

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A sign on the trail to Crater Lake warns backpackers last summer that camping is closed at the 11 sites near the lake because of ongoing bear conflicts.
Aspen Times file |

The U.S. Forest Service banned camping at Crater Lake, the gateway to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, for an indefinite period Wednesday after ongoing conflicts between humans and bears.

The closure affects 11 sites, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer. The action was necessary because of bear issues, which came to a head Saturday evening, she said.

Lead Wilderness Ranger Andrew Larson was on patrol in the Crater Lake area Saturday to check for compliance with a new rule that backpackers must use a bear-resistant container for food, trash and other attractants. While there, a sow black bear and her cub invaded at least one campsite looking for food, Schroyer said. They displayed little fear of humans even after Larson and the campers threw rocks at them banged on pans to try to scare them off.

“The mother was starting to show signs of aggression,” Schroyer said.

It is suspected that the sow was scavenging at Crater Lake last year as well. Other bears also have been in the area.

The White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office worked on an emergency order for the closure after the events Saturday. It doesn’t affect day hikers or backpackers passing through the area. Crater Lake is about 1½ miles from Maroon Lake.

“This action keeps overnight visitors away from an area of potentially dangerous bear activity, prevents bears from further obtaining human food and garbage and encourages bears to begin finding their natural food,” the Forest Service said in a statement.

Schroyer said wildlife officers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife will stage at Crater Lake this week to attempt “adverse conditioning” with the bears. They will use non-lethal methods such as using Tasers on the bears and shooting them with rubber buckshot and beanbags fired from shotguns.

Wildlife officials couldn’t be reached for comment about the adverse training attempt. The Forest Service said the goal is to retrain the bears to search for food in their natural environment rather than look for food sources provided by humans. It is uncertain if retraining will work. Colorado Parks and Wildlife for years has said as part of its education plan that a fed bear is a dead bear.

The White River National Forest approved an emergency order July 10 requiring the hard-sided bear-resistant containers for backpackers throughout the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Compliance has ranged from 50 to 75 percent, according to the agency, but the campers who don’t properly store their food are responsible for ongoing problems.

“Some visitors do not come prepared or are not using storage canisters correctly,” the Forest Service said in a statement. “As a result, emboldened bears in West Maroon Valley continue to become increasingly dangerous to visitors in search of human food and garbage, particularly at Crater Lake where bears have been awarded with human food and garbage regularly.”

Wilderness rangers have been issuing warnings and also have given about six tickets to backpackers who ignore the container rule, according to Schroyer.

The canisters should be stored at least 100 feet from a camp. They should not be hung in trees or other objects. The rope gives bears something to hold onto.

Bear-resistant containers may be purchased online, at suppliers across North America and at the following local outdoor stores: Aspen Expeditions and Four Mountain Sports at Aspen Highlands; Bristlecone Mountain Sports, Basalt; Factory Outdoors or Summit Canyon Mountaineering, Glenwood Springs; Ute Mountaineer, Aspen; and Ragged Mountain Sports, Carbondale.