Pitkin County wants to stop bear banquets at the landfill | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County wants to stop bear banquets at the landfill

Lesa Russo/Special to The Aspen Times

When natural food sources are abundant, as they seem to be this summer, most Roaring Fork Valley residents see fewer black bears in their neighborhood.

But Pitkin County Landfill employees are seeing bears regularly. It’s been that way ever since the county began accepting tons of local and regional food waste. The food scraps have proved a great source of revenue for the landfill, and they’re perfect organic matter for the composting program.

But food waste also attracts hungry bruins to the landfill, which sits roughly nine miles northwest of Aspen, just off Highway 82.

“It’s surrounded by some of the best bear habitat around,” said Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “It’s a great place for bears, and we’ve put a wonderful food source right in the middle of it.”

Once accustomed to human food, black bears rarely kick the habit. And the habit brings them into risky contact with people. So what should Pitkin County do about the bruins that continually visit the landfill in search of tasty scraps? Solid Waste Manager Cathy Hall and Public Works Director Brian Pettet put this question to county commissioners Tuesday, and they gave the elected officials three suggested bear-control methods:

• “Hazing” bears with rubber bullets and spray. Landfill employees already do this, and they say it’s relatively effective but has not stopped the problem.

• Electric fencing is highly effective but would cost roughly $150,000 to install around the entire facility. It would also probably drive the bears into neighboring areas like Aspen Village.

• Controlled hunting might be controversial, but it actually would reduce the number of bears, as hunting has done with deer, elk and other animal populations.

Wright, the acknowledged bear expert in the room, recommended a combination of all three solutions. Commissioners wrestled with the topic for nearly an hour and expressed differing opinions. There were varying degrees of comfort and discomfort with the idea of killing bears, but all seemed to agree that continued (and perhaps intensified) hazing is warranted, along with some electric fencing.

“We ask our citizens to secure their garbage … and yet somehow we don’t lock our garbage up?” Commissioner Michael Owsley said. “We really have to do that, I think.”

The hurdle with electric fencing was the cost. Commissioner Steve Child suggested fencing just the food waste and compost, thus reducing the overall price tag. Without knowing more about the bears’ behavior and the effectiveness of fencing just one area, however, county staff members were reluctant to make any decisions. They agreed to return to the Board of County Commissioners with more information on the cost and effectiveness of fencing different areas, from just the compost to the entire property.

As Commissioner Rachel Richards noted, however, just fencing the property may not solve the problem. “I don’t think we could do the electric fence without also culling (bears) because you’re just going to push the bears into other communities,” she said.

No board members particularly liked the idea of killing bears, but a majority agreed that reducing the number of bears in the area is probably necessary. County staff members proposed a lottery to select a few qualified, licensed hunters to harvest perhaps six bears.

Wright said bear numbers are growing locally and statewide and that Aspen is “the epicenter” for bear-human conflicts.

“Whether or not there’s a fence, I think a harvest program should be permitted,” he said. “That’s how we try to control the deer. That’s how we try to control the elk.”

Owsley stated flatly, “I just don’t like killing bears. That’s just me. I’ll leave that to somebody else.”

Other commissioners were more comfortable with a limited hunt at the landfill. Commissioner George Newman said, “I don’t see anything wrong with hunting. I would like to see it phased in, with perhaps just a few tags in the first year in combination with the other measures.”

Because Tuesday’s meeting was only a work session, commissioners didn’t make a final decision on the bear problem. They asked staff members to return with more information on electric fencing. Once they decide whether to erect fencing, and how much, then most seemed inclined toward some degree of continued hazing and perhaps a controlled bear hunt at the Landfill.

“I think if you go in and harvest a few bears, the other bears might smarten up,” Wright said.

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