Who’s been sleeping in my tree? | AspenTimes.com

Who’s been sleeping in my tree?

Janet Urquhart
A mama bear takes a nap while her two cubs snooze above her in a pine tree near the Aspen Club Sunday afternoon August 15, 2004. Aspen, Colo. and the Roaring Fork Valley have seen a tremendous amount of human-bear encounters the last several months due to an early freeze which killed the bruins natural food supply. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

Anyone without a bear story to tell in Aspen this summer is an outcast at the office water cooler.Ursine encounters are the topic of conversation at the grocery store, on street corners and over coffee, not to mention at the police department, where bear calls are as numerous as the huge piles of scat being deposited daily around town – the hallmark of a successful forage by members of Aspen’s black bear population.While some local residents and visitors revel in the kinds of benign encounters that make for a memorable photograph or tale to tell, other human/bear interactions have been a little too close for comfort – perhaps for both species.A growing number of homeowners are dealing with kitchens-turned-disaster-areas after a visit – sometimes multiple visits – by hungry bruins. Others have had their vehicles trashed – an unusual way to discover the ins and outs of one’s auto insurance policy.A few bad-news bears, though, have faced far harsher consequences. At least two adult bears in the upper valley have been killed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, along with a third in Redstone; three others have been trapped, tagged and relocated. They are marked for death if they get into further trouble, which is virtually a given, according to one wildlife officer.At least three others, including a sow and her cub, have died on Highway 82, while two motherless cubs are now in the care of a wildlife rehabilitation center in the hope they can be released to the wild. The taste for garbage, though, may eventually spell their doom.The DOW has reportedly run short of traps to deal with what wildlife officials are calling the worst bear season in memory. Pitkin County has passed new rules on garbage containers in problem neighborhoods and the city of Aspen is contemplating a similar step. The situation is only expected to get worse as bears begin their pre-hibernation feeding frenzy.Bear activity doesn’t usually intensify until late summer and fall, but was under way this year by the last week of June. A late-spring frost, which destroyed much of the acorn and berry crop in the upper valley, is getting the blame for this year’s trouble.Aspen has always had occasional bear problems, but human/bear conflicts are at an all-time high these days, according to Jonathan Lowsky, county wildlife biologist.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he told county commissioners last month. “We are seeing bears now doing things that, until recently, they had never done.””There will eventually be a human/bear conflict that won’t be pretty,” Aspen Councilwoman Rachel Richards predicted fearfully this week.Close calls and house callsEmily Casebeer, a 19-year-old Snowmass Village resident, had easily the biggest scare with a bear to date this summer when one overturned her tent at the Snowmass Lake trailhead and sniffed and pawed around in search of food; there was none in the tent.She never came in actual contact with the bruin, but wound up with a bruised hip and puncture wound, though there was no hole in either her sleeping bag, or her pants.The bear didn’t attack her, she stressed.”It didn’t feel violent or malicious,” Casebeer said. “It was just the bear doing what it does.”The DOW attempted to track the bear and would have killed it for its bold behavior, but the bruin escaped. “I think it’s unfortunate that it has to come to that,” Casebeer said. “I have mixed feelings about them finding the bear.”She’s not alone. Most local residents don’t want a bear in their house, but they don’t want the animals harmed, either.

House calls, however, have become an all-too-common occurrence this summer.A longtime homeowner on the ridge of Red Mountain, who asked not to be named, had a bear in her house twice this summer.”We’ve had bears before, but we’ve never had them invade before,” she said. “Half of the homes here have been invaded.”Kevin Wright, a local DOW wildlife officer who has put in some 15-hour days this summer just responding to bear calls, advised her to keep her doors and windows locked.”My first reaction was to just get out of here, not put up with it – but this is my house,” the homeowner said. “But it’s very depressing, to be all locked in. I mean, why live here if you can’t open the windows and enjoy the air?”Plenty of locals are locking their windows these days, including Mayor Helen Klanderud, who has had a bruin frequent her east-side back yard.”I may be being overly cautious – I feel like a prisoner in my own house sometimes,” she conceded. “When I first moved here 30 years ago, I loved to leave my windows open at night. I could hear the river. That’s not happening anymore.”Instructions to keep windows shut and locked all day aren’t always greeted enthusiastically, say local police, who’d responded to a whopping 260 bear calls between April 1 and Aug. 11.”If the windows are open, the bear considers it an invitation to come in,” said Matt Burg, community safety officer.

“I always say I’d rather be hot than picking up my refrigerator,” added Officer Rick Magnuson. “I’ve seen what a bear does to a refrigerator.”So has Sue Helm, an Old Snowmass resident who had a sow and two cubs march through her home two nights in a row earlier this month. The first night, the family entered through a closed, but unlocked door and headed for the kitchen, raiding the countertops, pantry, fridge and freezer.”I was sleeping. I didn’t hear them come in,” Helm said. “They walked right past my [closed] bedroom door.”They made a big mess, but really did very little damage.”The second night, the sow broke in through a closed, but unlocked window, awakening a houseguest. Deputies chased the bruins off with small beanbags fired from a shotgun.The third night, the bears tried again, but Helm’s home was locked up tight. Now, she’s considering an urban-style security measure – bars on the windows.Jane Rosen’s window at Midland Park was closed when bear broke through it and entered her condo through the shattered pane in the middle of the night. By the time authorities arrived, the bruin had departed after helping himself to sugar and some food from the fridge. He pulled out what was left of the window and the frame to ease his exit.”He was standing on his hind legs. He had to be 8 feet tall,” Rosen said.Conflicting opinionsThe bear may have been the legendary Fat Albert, the gentle giant who prowls the base of Smuggler Mountain, too clever to be trapped.

Wright cringes when bears get a nickname, whether it’s Fat Albert in Aspen or the bear with the bum paw dubbed Tripod in Redstone. Local affection for a particular bear just makes Wright’s job more difficult.”A lot of people love that bear [Fat Albert]. They don’t want me to sneeze at him,” he said. “Other people want that bear put down.”Local sentiment regarding bears runs the gamut – from individuals who tamper with DOW traps or let trapped bears loose to homeowners who demand action by wildlife officials, whether they’ve cleaned up their own act or not.Pitkin County was forced to prohibit the use of individual, wildlife-resistant trash containers in various neighborhoods after bears successfully began breaking into them time and time again. “They’re little picnic boxes,” observed the county’s Lowsky.First to react was Aspen Village, where 150 homeowners were dealing with as many as 10 brazen bears prowling daily through the neighborhood in broad daylight. Now, the subdivision is converting to a few centralized trash-collection sites where bear-proof Dumpsters have been placed.In other areas, residents have until Sept. 10 to get rid of the 90-gallon garbage carts unless they are upgraded or kept locked in a garage or bear-proof enclosure.Nance Schutter, a Williams Ranch resident, has her own system of garbage disposal: “I just don’t put garbage in my trash anymore.” She takes food waste to a secure Dumpster.Schutter and her fiance, Carlo Marino, made the Denver television news after a bear caused nearly $4,000 in damage to their Chevy Tahoe, breaking into the vehicle though it provided nothing more than some old cough drops in the way of food. (Insurance covered the damage.)

Most individuals who experience bear trouble acknowledge their role in the incident, according to local wildlife officials and police officers. Many are reluctant to notify the DOW for fear the window they left open or the dog food in the trunk of a car may ultimately result in a bear’s demise.”It’s a sad situation, I think. I don’t know what the solution is,” said Midland Park’s Rosen. “I don’t want them to be breaking into my house, but I don’t want them put down.”Two strikesKilling a bear is not an action wildlife officials relish either, according to the DOW’s Wright. When it has to be done, a bear is tranquilized and then shot.”I sometimes think people think we’re coldhearted. That’s not the case,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing I have to do. I absolutely hate it.”The division’s two-strike policy calls first for the relocation of a problem bear, but Wright said he’s running out of suitable habitat. Often a bear is back within days, he added. Getting into trouble a second time carries a death sentence.The DOW reacts after there’s already a problem, said division spokesman Todd Malmsbury. That’s why the agency is reluctant to trap a bear until every method to discourage them has been exhausted, whether it’s getting a homeowner to bring bird feeders indoors or to rig balloons scented with something tasty but filled with ammonia, to drive off the bear that bites or claws into it.”Sometimes, bears become so habituated that they will literally walk by natural forage even if it’s available because they’ve become accustomed to feeding on human food, on trash,” Malmsbury said.When the DOW is dealing with that kind of bear, the animal may be killed without trying relocation first, he said.The DOW estimates there are 10,000 to 12,000 bears in Colorado. Prime bear habitat, between 6,000 and 9,500 feet altitude, also happens to be prime condo and second-home habitat, Malmsbury noted.

Despite the number of bears living in close proximity to people, aggressive behavior by black bears is relatively rare. (The more ferocious grizzly doesn’t prowl Colorado any longer. The last known grizzly was killed in 1979 in the southern San Juan mountains.)In 2001, eight people were injured in encounters with black bears – all in campground settings, according to Malmsbury. All eight required medical treatment, but none were hospitalized overnight.”None of them were predatory attacks,” he said.Only two human fatalities involving black bears have been recorded in Colorado – one in Grand Lake in 1971 and one in Cotopaxi, west of Canon City, in 1997. In both cases, aggressive bears were tracked down and killed.Given the number of human/bear interactions annually, the odds of a fatal encounter are “infinitesimal,” Malmsbury said.”They’re not looking at us as food,” he said. “They want our peanut butter sandwich.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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