Support for DOW at forum on bears | AspenTimes.com

Support for DOW at forum on bears

ASPEN ” The Colorado Division of Wildlife came to a public meeting in Aspen loaded for bear, but its officers received thanks Wednesday night for the tough job of dealing with bruins.

A “bear forum” attracted between 40 and 50 residents to discuss why bear encounters with humans have soared this year and what can be done to spare bears’ lives. Wildlife officers shows up in force. Twelve wildlife officers from Grand Junction to Vail attended to answer questions, and some made presentations.

Ron Velarde, the regional manager for the division, said he figured people would be more critical of the Wildlife Division’s decision to kill seven bears so far in Pitkin County this summer for breaking into homes.

Instead, the audience was overwhelmingly understanding of the wildlife officers’ jobs and in favor of harsher penalties for people who make human food sources available to bears.

One speaker, identified only as Satchel, suggested people with sloppy habits who let bears get into food should be publicly humiliated by being thrown into stockades and heavily fined.

The only controversy was whether or not bears should be fed since their natural food supplies are so depleted this year. A late frost and dry conditions have damaged acorn and berry crops. Bears are seeking easy pickings in Roaring Fork Valley towns and homes in rural areas.

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When bears are caught entering homes through unsecured doors or windows, they are tagged. There is a “two-strike” policy for nuisance bears. They are killed if they are caught entering a second time. But Velarde said some bears get conditioned to associate homes with food and have started breaking into structures. One bear has broken into homes 30 times, wildlife officers said.

“That bear dies,” Velarde said, producing groans from some in the crowd.

“My heart is left very saddened by having to kill ’em,” said Dorothy Thompson, a Pitkin County landowner.

Velarde said many on his staff get “physically ill” when they are required to kill a bear. “Every one of these wildlife officers didn’t get into the business to kill bears,” he said.

Some audience members urged the wildlife division to take greater pity on bruins in their time of need.

Catherine Garland of Aspen said it’s inhumane for people to watch fellow mammals suffer. All the food that gets wasted should be given to starving bears rather than discarded in Dumpsters and buried in the landfill, she said.

Randy Hampton, a public information specialist for the wildlife division, said feeding bears doesn’t work for numerous reasons. It habituates bears to human food or gets them dependent on handouts even if berries and acorns are distributed in the woods. Also, famines are part of a natural process. To intervene could promote overpopulation.

Then, there’s the logistics of such an operation. “You’d have to get Haliburton here to set up for that kind of feeding,” Hampton said. Bears need up to 20,000 calories per day to prepare for hibernation. That’s the equivalent of 30 to 40 pounds of dog food daily.

A woman whose name wasn’t available said a group of Aspenites feel badly about the bears being killed and wondered if feeding operations have been started in Vail. Wildlife officers assure her no feeding is taking place.

The woman also wanted the second strike policy extended to bears even for breaking and entering homes. “I guess I don’t see them as bad bears,” she said.

Velarde said other Colorado residents are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They want the wildlife division to kill every bear that ventures into civilization. The two-strike policy was a compromise, he said. But there is no leeway on safety of humans. A bear that breaks into a home poses a danger and must be destroyed, he said.

Woody Creek resident Don Lemos said a bear recently broke a window in his garage then destroyed the garage door, causing $2,000 in damage, to get at a freezer. He is working with Aspen district wildlife manager Kevin Wright to prevent additional visits, but Lemos said he is concerned. “I’m living in paranoia and not sleeping real well,” he said.

Lemos stressed he doesn’t want the bear killed; he just wants it to leave him alone. He thanked the wildlife division for trying to help him.

Another homeowner who said she is taking all the steps personally to avoid bear problem said her neighbors’ habits are frustrating. Carmen Riley said she is chasing bears from her yard because her Latino neighbor stores garbage on his porch.

“Our Latino community does not understand why we lock up our trash” she said. She urged the wildlife division to send its educational information in English as well as Spanish.

Pitkin County code enforcement officer Carrington Brown said fliers will be out in Spanish next week, explaining the bear ordinance that was made tougher last week.

Several citizens were inspired at the meeting to volunteer for a Bear Aware program. Volunteers will be trained by the wildlife division to help patrol Aspen and Pitkin County and help educate homeowners who provide bears with access to food to change their habits.