Bear problem looks better, though summer is young | AspenTimes.com

Bear problem looks better, though summer is young

The lack of a late spring freeze appears to have allowed enough bear food to develop naturally so far this summer, which is mostly keeping the animals from foraging in town and reprising last summer's bruin invasion, officials said this week.

However, the bears didn't begin moving into town in earnest last year until late summer and bear calls so far are about the same this year as this time last year, leaving wildlife officials cautiously optimistic about the next few months.

"If we don't get any rain, it could turn into another bad year like last year," said Kurtis Tesch, Roaring Fork Valley wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "It's too early to tell if (some bear food sources) are going to come out or not."

So far, though, this year feels different than last year, he said.

"(Bear-human) conflict calls are down exponentially," Tesch said. "(Last summer) I was getting constant phone calls all day from people dealing with bears.

"They were way active last year at this time."

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Aspen police and a Pitkin County wildlife official also said the summer is better so far this year as it relates to problems with bears and humans.

However, it appears that the magnitude of last summer's bear problem — mama bears and their cubs took up residence in large trees outside the Pitkin County Courthouse and on the Hyman Avenue mall for days at a time — may be coloring memories.

That's because the number of bear calls in the city in May and June this year so far are almost exactly the same as last year. Aspen police received 27 bear calls in May and June 2017 and had received 26 in May and June this year as of Thursday, according to police statistics.

Pitkin County has received 17 bear calls so far this year, Basalt has received 13 and Snowmass Village has had five, said ReRe Baker, Pitkin County's animal services director. Comparison numbers for those areas last year were not available last week.

Bears have broken into two cars in Brush Creek Village so far this year, Baker said. Also, bears have broken into a home at the Phillips Trailer Park and another in Aspen Village in the past three to four weeks, Tesch said.

Last week, the U.S. Postal Service suspended mail delivery in the Aspen Village area because of "an aggressive bear patrolling the area." Residents there have to go to the post office to get their mail until it is "no longer a danger."

As last summer wore on, bears began coming down from the hills and into populated areas more frequently. They broke into numerous homes and cars and were frequently seen on the streets of Aspen. The city received 615 bear calls in 2017, compared with 219 the year before, according to police statistics.

The summer of bears culminated with an incident in mid-September when a large group of tourists on the Hyman Avenue mall crowded a mother and cubs for pictures as they descended a tree. Some chased the bears for photos, causing the cubs to become separated from the mother.

The agitated mother bear then returned to the area, while police officers struggled to control chaos.

Within a day, CPW officials tranquilized the mother and two cubs, removed them from the tree and relocated them to the Utah-Colorado border.

This year, the city power-washed many of the blossoms from several choke cherry trees in the pedestrian mall area in front of Grey Lady and Jimmy's Bodega restaurants, said Ginna Gordon, Aspen police community resource officer. They didn't get all of them, however, and will return later to remove the rest of the fruit so as not to attract bears, she said.

The blossoms were not removed from several chokecherry trees in front of the Pitkin County Courthouse, Gordon said.

So far, bear food like chokecherries and serviceberries in the wild are coming along, though it's too early to tell if the acorn crop — essential to bears' fall forage — will develop, Tesch said.

As opposed to the number of animal calls — which generally remains the same year to year — the number of bear calls appears to spike and drop on a yearly basis, according to a chart graph on the Aspen police website.

In the past seven years, for example, the number of bear calls spiked at 1,040 in 2012, dropped to just 54 in 2013 then shot back up to 777 in 2014. It fell again in 2015 and 2016 before increasing significantly again last year.

Tesch — who deals with bears up and down the Roaring Fork Valley — said he had to euthanize 15 bears in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley last year. The lack of those bears in the area — which had developed a taste for trash — could mean fewer issues with bears in human areas this year, he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com