Photographer: Grizzly hoax just unbearable

Scott Condon
The photo that hoaxers tried to pass off as a sighting of a grizzly bear in the wilderness outside of Aspen appears to have been lifted from a poster produced by the Be Bear Aware campaign. Photographer Chuck Bartlebaugh captured the image in 1987. (Courtesy Chuck Bartlebaugh)

ASPEN Whoever tried to pull off a hoax about a grizzly bear sighting in Aspen’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness wasn’t very creative.A picture circulating as alleged proof of the sighting appears to be an image stolen from Chuck Bartlebaugh, a photographer and representative of the Be Bear Aware and Wildlife Stewardship Campaign in Missoula, Mont.”I believe the photo is one of mine that I took at Denali National Park in Alaska in 1987,” Bartlebaugh said in an e-mail interview. “I have used this photo, or one very similar to it, on about 20,000 posters. It has been published in numerous magazines and on high-quality gift cards that could be scanned easily.”Bartlebaugh mailed The Aspen Times the poster he referred to, which originally came out in 1991. The picture is a splitting image of the photo an Aspen family gave to the Colorado Division of Wildlife as part of their story of an alleged grizzly sighting. Both images show a grizzly sow with two cubs.The poster celebrates the grizzly’s grandeur: “The Last Great Symbol of the Wilderness,” the headline says. Bartlebaugh said he couldn’t be 100 percent certain that the photo of the alleged Aspen sighting was his because there were other photographers beside him in Denali in 1987 who might have gotten the same photo. At any rate, the photo was obviously from that opportunity.

Rumors of an alleged bear sighting started circulating in Aspen last fall. Kevin Wright, a longtime wildlife manager in the Aspen area, traced the rumor to its origin last month, according to Wildlife Division spokesman Randy Hampton. An Aspen family said their nanny took the photo while on a short hike that started at Maroon Lake.The nanny allegedly took the picture last fall with a small, digital camera, before scrambling out of the wilderness area and back to Maroon Lake. The family later downloaded the images and learned her story and started showing the image to friends.Wright heard the rumor, became curious and investigated. The Wildlife Division was skeptical of the event but couldn’t dismiss it outright, Hampton said. The wildlife division wanted to interview the nanny about her experience but the family claimed she was unavailable in Florida.The wildlife division shared the photo with The Aspen Times, which forwarded it to Chris Servheen, a grizzly expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said he saw the photo before and put a reporter in touch with Bartlebaugh. The Times reported June 30 that the “sighting” appeared to be a hoax.Bartlebaugh mailed his poster to the newspaper, confirming the source of the image. He also talked to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.Hampton said the investigation into the alleged sighting is over. “It’s frustrating for us to get this kind of stuff,” Hampton said.

It not only wastes the time of wildlife officers, it also makes people reluctant to report unusual wildlife encounters. For example, two hunters reported a possible sighting of a grizzly bear in the Independence Pass area last fall. The wildlife division thought it was credible enough to launch an investigation. No physical proof of grizzlies was found, but the exercise was worthwhile, according to the agency.”We tell people if they have things that raise questions, bring them to us,” Hampton said.The wildlife division wouldn’t give The Aspen Times the name of the family that reported the grizzly sighting in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It’s unknown if the family was hoodwinked or was part of the hoax.The wildlife division is dropping the investigation and won’t try to find out who was part of the hoax or why, Hampton said.Bartlebaugh suspects the hoax is part of a fund-raising scam. Some nonprofit organizations believe they can lure support – thus, funding – by raising the possibility that a grizzly sow and cubs are roaming the Colorado wilderness, he said.

“It’s really irresponsible. There are people that do this just to go out and make money,” Bartlebaugh said.This wasn’t the first time his grizzly picture was lifted.”In this electronic world we live in today, I have found it appearing on the Internet used without my permission,” he said.Ironically, the Be Bear Aware campaign tries to educate people about the differences of the grizzly and black bear, which are abundant in the Aspen area. The campaign also tries to educate people about safe and responsible behavior around wildlife. More information about the organization can be found on the web as Condon’s e-mail address is