Bear-resistant containers required for backpackers in Aspen area
New rule affects backpackers in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
• The new requirement to carry bear-resistant containers will affect backpackers headed to numerous high-profile destinations including the Four Pass Loop, Snowmass Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs, Willow Lake, Capitol Lake, Avalanche Lake and Thomas Lakes at the base of Mount Sopris.
• Maps issued by the Forest Service and commercial companies show the boundaries of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
• The emergency order makes it a misdemeanor to ignore the requirement to carry and use bear-resistant containers. In addition to the fine of up to $5,000, the Forest Service can also seek imprisonment of up to six months.
Backpackers camping anywhere in the vast Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness will have to use bear-resistant food and garbage containers this summer or risk a fine of as much as $5,000.
The White River National Forest enacted an emergency order Tuesday that requires use of the special containers throughout the 162,333 acres of the wilderness area that is within the White River National Forest. A small portion of the wilderness area is in the Gunnison National Forest and isn’t subject to the order, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Tuesday’s action was a massive expansion over an emergency order taken last summer after bears were getting into the food, garbage and other attractants of backpackers primarily in the Crater Lake area.
Crater Lake is a popular destination about 1.5 miles from Maroon Lake, southwest of Aspen. It’s a gateway to the many wonders in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Last year’s order affected only the West Maroon Valley, from Crater Lake to West Maroon Pass. It covered about 7,000 acres, according to Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist on the White River National Forest.
The targeted area had to be expanded, Nyland said, because people hiked just outside the boundary last year to avoid having to use the containers. The bears reacted by following the attractants.
“The bears just follow the problem,” Nyland said.
The new requirement to carry bear-resistant containers will affect backpackers headed to numerous high-profile destinations. The areas affected include the Four Pass Loop, Snowmass Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs, Willow Lake, Capitol Lake, Avalanche Lake and Thomas Lakes at the base of Mount Sopris. Maps issued by the Forest Service and commercial companies show the boundaries of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Wilderness rangers on patrol in the backcountry will check for compliance, Nyland said. Signs are being posted at all major trailheads to alert people of the requirement. Signs also will be posted on trails that enter the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness from an adjacent forest.
The old-school method of hanging food and garbage bags in trees will not be accepted as an alternative for using bear-resistant containers. The black bears that live in the White River National Forest have become educated on how to retrieve those attractants — even if they are hung correctly, Nyland said. Forest Service officials previously said they don’t believe many people were actually hanging food bags correctly from trees, making them easy prey for bears.
Nyland said there was no major event in the wilderness area this year that triggered the emergency order. A bear got into a bag hung in a tree by a couple at Crater Lake, he said, but there was no injury to a person. There were 13 incidents in 2014 where bears got into food, garbage or other attractants that weren’t properly secured, according to the Forest Service.
In 2011, black bears bit two men in separate incidents while camping around Crater Lake. One required stitches and surgery to treat his wounds, according to Nyland.
While there haven’t been encounters this year, the Forest Service doesn’t want to wait for problems to develop, Nyland said.
The emergency order requires all overnight hikers to provide their own hard-sided containers approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Compliant containers can be purchased at all major sporting goods stores from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, according to the Forest Service. In addition, they can be rented from Aspen Expeditions at Aspen Highlands and Ute Mountaineer in Aspen.
Forest Service officials hope that backpackers will look at the greater good for humans and bears rather than view the requirement as a burden, Nyland said. Requiring the use of the containers assures that campers are safe and that people using the area in the future aren’t endangered because of bears learning bad habits from humans not properly storing food. The order will also prevent the need to track and kill bears after encounters with humans.
The Forest Service said in a statement that Colorado Parks and Wildlife supports the emergency order. The requirement is set to expire Dec. 31. The Forest Service must follow a different process if it wants to make the requirement permanent.
The emergency order makes it a misdemeanor to ignore the requirement to carry and use bear-resistant containers. In addition to the fine of as much as $5,000, the Forest Service can also seek imprisonment of as much as six months.
“Forest Service personnel can consider the circumstances of the situation and elect to give a warning notice or educate visitors of the importance for proper storage of food, garbage, and attractants,” the agency said in a statement.
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