In Aspen area, bear hunting encouraged

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

State officials considered hiring professional hunters with U.S. Wildlife Services to kill bears that were raiding camps for food earlier this summer at Crater Lake near the Maroon Bells.

But Colorado Parks and Wildlife decided instead to rely on precautions established by the U.S. Forest Service to decrease conflicts. Now that the annual bear-hunting season is underway, state wildlife officers are urging regular sportsmen with the proper licenses to focus on areas in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, including Crater Lake, according to Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager for the Aspen area.

Hiring professional hunters with the obscure federal agency isn’t unprecedented. U.S. Wildlife Services was enlisted in August 2011 after bears injured campers in tents in two separate incidents in the Crater Lake area.

The Forest Service tried to ease conflicts this summer by banning camping at 11 sites around Crater Lake in mid-August and requiring campers in two nearby drainages to use food containers that eliminate smells that attract bears. There were at least six incidents prior to the ban where bears attempted to get unattended food or trash, the Forest Service said.

“There’s a lot of people out there that want to hunt bears. We’re hoping over time that can help.”
Kevin Wright
Colorado Parks and Wildlife

“Once they closed the sites, it calmed down,” said Perry Will, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager for the area that includes Aspen.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has increased the number of bear tags available in the Aspen area and other parts of the state in recent years.

“It’s a response to the conflicts we’ve had,” Will said.

The high country surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley is called Game Management Unit 43 by the state wildlife agency. It stretches from the Maroon Bells area to Glenwood Springs. The unit was split, something the wildlife division rarely does, and bear tags are specifically issued for an area that stretches south from Capitol Creek and includes the Maroon Bells base area, Wright said.

He said he personally urges bear hunters to target the upper valley. He said he would rather see sportsmen harvesting the bears than wildlife officers euthanizing them when conflicts arise.

“There’s a lot of people out there that want to hunt bears,” Wright said. “We’re hoping over time that can help. We’re trying to suppress the population, so we’ve got more licenses out there.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife uses the issuance of hunting licenses as a way to control big-game populations. When there are more bears or elk than is considered sustainable in an area, more licenses will be made available. In the case of deer, fewer licenses have been issued as populations have declined.

Wright said he doesn’t blame the bears for the conflicts in the Crater Lake area. Too many campers are “sloppy” with their storage of food and trash, he said.

“It comes down to: If a bear can’t be a bear in a wilderness area, where can it be?” he asked. Wright questioned whether the area from West Maroon Pass to Crater Lake and especially the area between Maroon Lake and Crater Lake can be considered wilderness any longer because of the high summer use by hikers and backpackers.

The first bear-hunting season started Sept. 2 and goes through Sept. 30. Additional hunting seasons coincide with deer and elk seasons. The number of bear tags issued for the upper Roaring Fork Valley has been maintained at its current level for the past few seasons, Wright said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website shows there were 21 bears harvested from Game Management Unit 43 in 2011. That leaped to 31 in 2012 and slipped to 19 last year.

Wright said he hasn’t detected a lot of bear-hunting activity yet in the Maroon Bells area this year.

“I would say it hasn’t been hot and heavy,” he said.

A hiker reported encountering a hunter on the West Maroon Trail near dusk Saturday. The hunter reportedly said he was looking for a large bear that had been causing problems at Crater Lake earlier in the summer.