Sundeck visitors fed bear prior to its death

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Officers with Colorado Parks & Wildlife euthanized a 70-pound yearling bear after finding it in this location pictured under the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain. The bear retreated under the restaurant after an Aspen Skiing Co. caretaker shot it.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo |

Visitors to the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain on multiple occasions fed a yearling bear in the days leading up to its euthanasia after it charged at a person Saturday, authorities said Wednesday.

“This explains 100 percent why that bear got the way it was,” said Perry Will, area manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Will said he and wildlife officer Curtis Tesch on Tuesday investigated the scenario that led to the bear’s death. An employee of Aspen Skiing Co., which owns and operates the Sundeck, shot the bear inside the restaurant, which was closed at the time, after it charged him. The bear was put down by Parks and Wildlife later that day.

Skico did not open the Sundeck and gondola until approximately noon that day because of the incident.

The employee who shot the bear, an Aspen Skiing Co. caretaker who lives on the mountain at a Skico property, met Will and Tesch at the Sundeck to review the events leading to the bear’s death, Will said.

“We wanted to know how it happened because this was kind of weird,” Will said.

Will said he did not doubt the employee’s claims that visitors fed the yearling from the restaurant’s deck. He also said that a father and son were once spotted feeding the bear by hand.

“This bear had been getting fed and was getting rewarded by coming back to the restaurant,” Will said.

It is illegal to feed bears in Colorado, in large part because they can become accustomed to easy meals through aggressive behavior.

“Most conflicts between people and bears can be traced to easy-to-get-at human food, garbage, pet food, bird seed or other attractants,” according to the Parks and Wildlife website. “When people allow bears to find food, a bear’s natural drive to eat can overcome its wariness of humans. Bears that get too comfortable around people can destroy property or even become a threat to human safety. Habituated bears must often be destroyed.”

Authorities: shooting was justified

The 70-pound bear that was killed exhibited the very behavior prompted by feeding it, Will said.

A Skico employee fired a beanbag at the animal Friday, the same day it charged a chef in the restaurant, Will said. The bear returned two hours later, he said.

Parks and Wildlife’s investigation showed that the caretaker’s actions were justified, said Will and agency spokesman Mike Porras.

“We consider the shooting of the bear justified, but one thing I am making clear is we do not recommend that people take to using firearms to defend themselves as the first step,” Porras said. “However, we also respect the right to use deadly force if necessary.”

Despite the bear’s small size, it still posed a formidable threat, Porras said.

“This was a small yearling, but just because it wasn’t big doesn’t mean it couldn’t cause serious injuries to a person or even kill him,” he said.

Said Perry: “I’ll stick to my guns on this that it was justified. (The caretaker) was pretty remorseful. It’s not something he wanted to do. I don’t hold anything against him.”

Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said the employee declined to be interviewed for this story.

“The individual involved acted in self-defense and felt he and others were in danger,” Hanle said in an statement issued to The Aspen Times. “The wildlife officers came to the same conclusion in their follow-up investigation.”

Such tactics as making noises, banging pots, yelling, throwing things and waving your arms to fend off a bear are recommended before turning a gun on one, Porras said.

“There’s a lot that could go wrong by taking that action (shooting the bear), but at the same time we do recognize the rights of people to defend themselves, and in this case we felt the use of a lethal weapon was justified,” he said.

According to a report from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the employee who shot the bear told a deputy that he initially tried to scare the bear outside but instead it charged him. The employee said he “believed he fired one slug, two buckshots and one .357 round into the bear,” the report says.

“This is a tragic outcome and not one that anyone wanted,” Skico’s statement said. “We have a company policy that prohibits firearms in the workplace. There were extenuating circumstances in this particular case. We were not aware that this employee had the weapons and we have spoken to him about this.”

The employee did not violate any state weapons laws by shooting the bear, said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.

“There was nothing illegal about him possessing (firearms) or shooting the bear,” he said.

Report details episode

The first authority to respond to the scene was Pitkin County Deputy Ryan Voss, who was contacted by the Sundeck at 8 a.m. Saturday, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.

The employee who shot the bear, with both a shotgun and .357 handgun, was first alerted at 5:45 that morning by a Sundeck worker who said the animal was “wrecking the place,” the report says. The bear broke into the restaurant, Hanle previously said.

When Voss arrived at the Sundeck, the shooter directed the deputy to the injured bear, which was underneath a table in the restaurant. Voss had the restaurant cleared of all employees, blocked off all entrances to the restaurant and asked that the gondola be closed.

Voss could not get a clear shot of the bear, saying “there were gas lines in the area and a hiking trail below.” After consulting with a Forest Service official, he decided to wait until Parks and Wildlife arrived at the scene.

Voss, however, was successful in verbally directing the injured bear out of the restaurant.

“At this time the bear climbed over the railing and ran underneath the Sundeck,” the report says. “All the doors were closed, and (the employee) and I ran around to try and locate the injured bear. We were not able to locate the injured bear.”

Soon after, the Forest Service closed the hiking trail below. At 11 a.m., two officials from Parks and Wildlife arrived and tracked down the bear under the deck and put it down, the report says.


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