The killing fields |

The killing fields

Charles Agar
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

On any evening after 10 p.m., a short ride through the maze of alleys in Aspen’s West End is like entering a black bear safari park lined with overturned Dumpsters and garbage cans ” a ready-made supermarket for the animals.

It’s a hard food year for bears, thanks to a late frost and summer drought conditions. The Colorado Division of Wildlife, following a strict “two-strike policy,” has euthanized three Aspen-area bears that had become aggressive in their quest for human food, and officials expect to kill more bears this summer in order to keep Aspenites safe.

In Colorado, when a bear breaks into a home ” a “first strike” ” the bear is trapped and relocated; in the case of a repeat offense the animal is euthanized. If a bear is violent or aggressive on the first infraction the animal is often put down without being relocated, officials said.

The Aspen Police Department has been increasingly swamped with 911 calls about problem bears.

Officers spend long hours tracking nuisance animals, using their car sirens and bright side lights to haze bears out of high human-traffic areas. And in many instances, in an effort to scare the animals away, police shoot bears with Kevlar beanbags that hurt but do not causy injury.

The Aspen Police Department has been increasingly swamped with 911 calls about problem bears.

Officers spend long hours tracking nuisance animals, using their car sirens and bright side lights to haze bears out of high human-traffic areas. And in many instances, in an effort to scare the animals away, police shoot bears with Kevlar beanbags that hurt but do not causy injury.

Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and I rode along on two graveyard shifts Friday and Saturday to experience the nightly cat-and-mouse game between police officers and Ursus americanus in downtown Aspen.

“Bear in a Dumpster on East Hopkins,” a dispatcher called over the radio on a recent Saturday night, and Aspen officer Terry Leitch kicked his patrol Volvo into high gear.

Leitch, who other officers nicknamed the “bear whisperer” for the time he tried to talk an unruly bear into compliance, has had his run-ins over the years. He remembers being charged in broad daylight by one aggressive bruin; another bear that had eaten gallons of powdered hot cocoa left a modern art masterpiece on a downtown mall when Leitch tried to scare the animal off.

Usually, however, a good loud shout makes most Aspen bears beat feet, Leitch said.

Responding to the call Saturday, Leitch pulled into a narrow alley behind Hopkins Avenue to shine headlights on a male bear emerging from the Dumpster. The bear had already torn the lid off the steel container to gain access.

Alarmed by the car lights and perhaps remembering the painful sting of a Kevlar beanbag, the 400-pound creature leaped from the bin and, stretching to his full length, pushed the huge Dumpster across the alley like a frustrated shopper might discard a grocery cart.

The bear would return to the Hopkins alley buffet repeatedly through the night, and we chased him into the bushes and through back alleys with flashlights a few times.

Leitch is seeing more than the usual amount of bear activity for this time of year, and he expects more confrontations in coming months, he said.

Another bear call Saturday near Shadow Mountain led us to a distraught hotel proprietor standing on the street, a pot lid and spoon in his hands set to make a racket and scare the bear off.

“I was going to scare it, but I was too scared to scare it,” the man said.

On the night before, Friday, I rode along with Aspen Police officer Roderick O’Connor.

“They know the cars,” O’Connor said, adding that most bears just run when they see police headlights ” a good sign, he noted.

And after just a few minutes on patrol, dispatch pointed O’Connor to a “bear being a bear” near a condo complex east of Aspen.

The homeowner said a brazen bear brushed right past her as she left her garage and she called police.

The youngster ” O’Connor estimated the bear at about 200 pounds and two years old ” perched on a rock between two condo buildings and posed for pictures, at one point closing its eyes for a short snooze before lumbering into the underbrush.

Officers prioritize calls based on need, O’Connor said. A “bear being a bear” call is usually just a bruin walking in town ” a common occurrence. But when bears get into trash or break into homes, police must act.

“The Dumpster thing is not a bear being a bear; that’s a ‘bear in a Dumpster,'” O’Connor said, pointing out one toppled can after another in Aspen alleys.

Some cans, though designed to be “bearproof,” just don’t stand up to the test, and bears are getting more and more clever, O’Connor said.

“We’ve been dealing with this all summer. Who knows what the fall’s going to be like?” O’Connor said.

On the nights we rode with the officers, they were dealing with almost as many drunks as bears. We joined the scene of a drunk driving arrest as well as a verbal domestic dispute involving alcohol. Then, shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday morning, things got interesting.

As the bars emptied and young revelers took over the downtown Aspen streets, two large bears took up residence at separate ends of Wagner Park, each drawing its own crowd.

One bear perched in a tree across from McDonald’s and looked anxious, huffing and grunting at onlookers. The other bear, most likely the 400-pounder we’d seen earlier in the evening, ignored the noisy humans and dined on leftovers from the “bearproof” city container he’d managed to open near Pacifica Seafood and Raw Bar.

Driving our own car for more bear hunting in the wee hours that morning, every turn onto a new street or down a new alley held promise of another sighting. All told, Paul and I spotted more than 10 bears in just a few hours over the two nights.

“It’s a Mother Nature issue, it’ a habitat issue and it’s a trash issue,” said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton.

And, he added, the prognosis for Aspen’s estimated 40 to 50 hungry black bears in coming months isn’t good.

A late frost in June 2007 devastated the summer berry crop, and the extremely dry, hot conditions this summer have killed chances for the healthy fall crop of acorns that bears rely on to fatten up for winter, Hampton said.

Driven to populated areas, some bears lose interest in natural food entirely, Hampton said. And when cubs learn to crawl into Dumpsters, it creates generations of garbage-dependent bears.

“Trash is meth for bears. They get addicted to it,” Hampton said, and the only solution is “taking those bears out.”

“The situation will only get worse as we enter September and the bears’ biology triggers a phenomenon known as hyperphagia, when bears eat 20,000 calories per day. When that period comes we’re going to have a lot more hungry bears,” Hampton said.

Hampton does not believe, as many Coloradans do, that the increase in human-bear encounters is because of fewer hunters or the 1996 vote terminating the spring bear hunting season. The number of bears killed during the fall hunting season alone is as high as when there were two annual hunts in 1996, Hampton said.

“The bigger factor is the human population increasing,” Hampton said. “[Development] is moving up the hillside right into that transition area [between human and wildlife habitat] where the bears are.”

When bears are displaced, they’ve got to go somewhere, and when pushed further into human habitat the bears begin to associate humans with food.

And human food kills bears, because they associate humans with food, become increasingly aggressive, and end up in trouble with authorities, Hampton said.

Sharon Baruch-Mordo, a doctoral student at Colorado State University, is in her third year working with DOW agents to study the habits of “urban black bears” in Aspen.

Her CSU team uses a Global Positioning System to track bears, to find out where they feed and to find out how far they go when hazed. Her study is not complete, but Baruch-Mordo observed “extreme movements” in 2007 as bears ranged far from their normal stomping grounds while searching for food.

“Aspen is great bear habitat,” Hampton said. And with the town’s cool temperatures and wide swaths of berries, Aspen has always been home to black bears.

It’s only during bad food years ” 2002 and 2004 both stand out in recent memory ” that bears get hooked on human food and problems arise, he said.

Unless Aspenites take drastic steps to tighten up on trash, Hampton said, the bears are going to get more aggressive and more animals will have to be killed.

If our brief nocturnal survey of Aspen’s overturned Dumpsters, bingeing bears and busy police officers illustrated anything, it’s that Aspenites aren’t getting the DOW message. It is human carelessness about garbage, bird feeders, and open doors and windows that is causing the problem, officials said, and not the bears.

“This is just a hard, hard year,” said Aspen District Wildlife Manager Kevin Wright.

Wright traps problem bears that break into homes and businesses, and said normally when he transports the bears they grunt menacingly, puff their cheeks and clack their teeth in warning.

But this year, even when trapped and in close proximity to humans, the animals are too busy finishing off the bait in the trap to be afraid, Wright said.

“These bears are very hungry,” Wright said.

He’s trapped and moved many bears out of Aspen and said he’ll continue to set traps. But Wright is running out of places to take the bruins, and says many of the animals that he relocates simply return anyway.

And there are a number of repeat offenders that will be euthanized this year because of Colorado’s two-strike policy.

“When they return and get into trouble, we do need to put them down,” Wright said.

But if Aspen residents can button down their garbage, Wright said, then the bears will stop associating humans with food.

“There are a lot of people doing the right thing,” Wright said.

Since the back-to-back euthanizations on Aug. 1 and 3, angry phone calls and letters to the editor in local papers have criticized Wright and the policies he must enforce. He said he can take the criticism as long as people turn anger to action.

“Channel your energy someplace positive,” Wright said. “What I’ve always tried to do is get people to start taking responsibility for where they live. People still choose to ignore the message.”

Wright encouraged Roaring Fork Valley residents to carefully bear-proof their garbage and their homes and take other steps to fix the problem.

“I think it can be done, if it’s made a priority and people choose to do so. It’s going to take commitment by the town to manage the trash,” Wright said.

Aspen has one parking officer who hands out citations for homeowners with substandard Dumpsters and trash cans, and Wright thinks that’s a start.

“But there’s only one person,” he said. “How can one person patrol the whole town?”

“We need the ability to fine trash companies for not fixing or providing bear-proof containers,” said Tim Ware, Aspen’s parking director, who said he sees many repeat offenders and faulty Dumpsters not being replaced.

The parking department issues warnings and fines starting at $50 up to $250.

“There are a specific set of standards a bearproof container is supposed to meet,” Wright said. All Dumpsters and garbage containers can’t have a gap in the door more than two inches wide, for example, and single-thickness doors need to be reinforced.

Aspen Police officers are doing a great job of hazing the animals, Wright said, but there aren’t enough officers to constantly chase bears out of town.

It is up to citizens to solve the problem.

Strict enforcement of garbage ordinances and citizen action is working elsewhere, Hampton said.

In Vail and nearby Snowmass Village, officials have not seen any bears euthanized in 2007, and Hampton believes the success in both cases is because of strict rules and enforcement around garbage, Hampton said.

Snowmass Village has had a trash ordinance in effect since 1994, and with two officers policing local trash receptacles, there have been no aggressive break-ins, nor bears transported or euthanized by DOW officials, according to Laurie Smith, a Snowmass Village wildlife officer.

“I think we are doing a really good job of bear-proofing our town, but it’s a constant work in progress,” Smith said. “The bears are showing up every single place that’s not bear-proof this year.”

In Vail, citizens took action after two bears were euthanized in 2005, Hampton said.

“People in Vail realized the Division of Wildlife isn’t going to change our response,” he said. “We will put down bears when they trip that policy.”

Tougher ordinances, strict enforcement and citizen action in Vail has reduced “nuisance bear” calls. Hampton said the bears are still in town, and police receive plenty of calls about bear sightings, but the bears aren’t breaking into homes or popping lids off Dumpsters.

“There’s no cure-all, but you can have some success and Vail is proof of that,” Hampton said.

Teams of “Bear Aware” citizens, who educate their neighbors about locking up their homes and garbage receptacles, have been successful in Glenwood Springs and Parachute, and Hampton was encouraged to hear rumblings about a group organizing in Aspen.

By encouraging elected officials to strengthen garbage ordinances and pushing for strict enforcement of existing rules, proactive citizens can make a difference, Hampton said.

And the result: Fewer bears trapped, drugged, euthanized and buried in the Pitkin County Landfill.

Charles Agar’s e-mail address is

Aspen is prime bear habitat, according to Colorado Division of Wildlife officials, and the chances of bear encounters are on the rise. By following some simple precautions, however, you can avoid conflict and help keep bears away from human food and garbage.

– Close and lock doors at night and when you are out of the house.

– Keep garbage out of reach (and smell) of bears. Use bear-proof trash cans; make sure cans are emptied and cleaned regularly with hot water and chlorine bleach or by burning residual trash inside cans (Contact DOW officials for bear enclosure designs and other suggestions).

– Do not store pet food outside.

– Clean barbecue grills of any grease and store inside.

– Hang bird seed, suet and hummingbird feeders on a wire strung high between two trees, not on a porch or deck, and bring all bird feeders inside at night.

– Do not put fruit, melon rinds or food in compost piles.

– Do not leave food in cars, even if closed and locked.

According to the DOW, there are no definite rules about what to do if you meet a black bear.

In most cases, the bear will spot you first and leave.

Bear attacks are rare but if you do encounter a bear, then DOW officials suggest staying calm and leaving the area.

If the bear notices you, talk aloud to announce your presence and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact and allowing the bear plenty of room to escape.

– A June frost killed most of the summer berry crop, leaving bears without food in early summer.

– Extreme summer heat and dry weather ” a period of near-drought conditions ” means acorn crops bears rely on for autumn sustenance are withered or nonexistent.

– Continuing development in rural areas of the Roaring Fork Valley and Colorado means humans are pushing black bears out of their natural habitat and into contact with humans.

– DOW officials follow a strict “two-strike policy.” When a bear breaks into a house, the animal is tagged and relocated if caught. On the second break-in (and capture), however, the bear gets euthanized. If a bear is violent and breaks down doors or smashes through windows or walls, the bear is caught and euthanized immediately.