Time to double check trash as hungry bears begin foraging | AspenTimes.com

Time to double check trash as hungry bears begin foraging

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A brown bear hangs out in front of the Hickory House during the late summer of September 2001. Now that the bears are awakening from their hibernation and with females having young, they are more agressive and hungry and locals need to take precautions such as keeping garbage lids well secured and bear proof. Paul Conrad photo.

Local bears have gotten their spring wake-up call, so there is also a wake-up call for humans in the surrounding area: lock up the garbage or face a hefty fine or two.

Pitkin County’s wildlife biologist warns that many bears have left their winter dens and are just beginning to search for food.

“People should be extra cautious, and one thing is important: Because we have had three years in a row when natural food was scarce, a lot of the young bears learned that garbage is a good place to find food,” said Jonathan Lowsky.

But officials in the Environmental Health Department are trying to teach locals that the lock-down on garbage is a year-round effort to protect all types of animals including bears, foxes, birds and squirrels. And two environmental health technicians the department hired in January are currently prowling alleys in search of violators of the city’s wildlife ordinance.

Jeannette Whitcomb, a senior environmental health specialist with the city, said countless warnings have been given to offenders so far, and six $50 tickets have been issued. She said as a whole, the department will be trying to tighten up its enforcement procedures this summer.

After a warning, a $50 ticket is issued, and a $250 ticket follows for on-going non-compliance. A required court appearance follows soon after.

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Whitcomb also warns that when violations are found at apartment complexes, the environmental health technicians aren’t beyond looking through the trash to determine exactly which tenant didn’t lock a garbage container, instead of fining the property manager.

But Whitcomb will also be out with educational programs this summer, and a “beefed up” bear awareness week is scheduled for the week of June 17. The department has applied for a $5,000 grant from the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Environmental Foundation to bring in speakers for outreach programs on the importance of the wildlife ordinance.

Lowsky said the natural food source of the bears may be affected by this winter’s drought.

“Our watershed is at 64 percent of snowpack, and can you remember the last time it snowed or rained?” he said. “The pluses to our situation is that things are pretty warm, so maybe we won’t have the late frost we’ve gotten the last three years that have hurt the berries, the acorns, or both.”

But Lowsky said the frost is difficult to predict, since it only takes one night late in the season to harm the natural food supply.

“People have asked me if the ordinance for the city made a difference for the bears, and the answer is that we don’t really know because with three bad natural food years in a row, most of the bears are problem bears,” he said. “They don’t have enough food. We’d need a year with a good natural food source to see if the bears are content with acorns, flowers, grass and berries.”

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