Wildlife experts hoping frost will spare bears’ food supply | AspenTimes.com

Wildlife experts hoping frost will spare bears’ food supply

Wildlife experts are breathing easier after a hard frost last week spared much of the oak brush and other vegetation that black bears will depend on for food by late summer.

The temperature dropped to 17 degrees in Aspen during the wee hours of Thursday, May 9, but that was apparently early enough in the season to avert disaster, according to Pitkin County wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky.

“We’re looking really good here still,” Lowsky said. “If we can go the next two weeks without a frost, we’ll have our first good food crop [for bears] in four years.”

Oak brush supplies acorns that are the staple for bears preparing for hibernation in late summer and fall. In the higher elevations around Aspen, the oak brush wasn’t budding yet when the frost hit, so there was little damage to the hearty plants.

Lowsky said other vegetation important for the bears’ food supply, such as service berry and choke cherry, blossomed after the hard frost. Service berry bushes throughout the valley are blooming now with beautiful white, pungent flowers.

Mother Nature wasn’t so kind last year. A hard frost on May 20 wiped out much of the oak brush throughout the valley. The berry crop fared better and eased the bears’ search for food in towns.

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Two years ago, frost and drought provided a one-two knockout punch on acorn and berry crops. As a result, conflicts between humans and bears skyrocketed in Aspen and even boosted them to new heights in towns like Basalt, where bear encounters had been rare.

While vegetation in the higher elevations around Aspen suffered little frost damage this year, the effect has been mixed farther downvalley. Alan Czenkusch of the Colorado Division of Wildlife said he has seen areas where frost damaged oak brush and other spots that were unfazed.

In places like Cattle Creek, where oak brush budded earlier because of the lower elevation at about 6,600 feet, the frost was damaging.

“It flat zapped every oak bud in sight,” said Czenkusch. But Basalt Mountain’s vegetation appeared fine, he said.

Missouri Heights resident Mark Fuller said the oak brush in his neighborhood at about 7,300 feet was “nipped” by last week’s freezing temperatures.

Wildlife division spokesman Todd Malmsbury said the extent of the damage in the Roaring Fork Valley and other parts of Colorado remains to be seen, but the frost seemed to come early enough to minimize damage. Now if it only starts raining so the berries flourish, “it may not be difficult for bears,” he said. “We may have an adequate food crop.”

Malmsbury said it is “inevitable” that drought and freezing will harm the food crops and spur bear problems somewhere in the state in any given year.

“We’ve not had an unusual number of bear calls so far this year,” he said.

But because the possibility exists, he lauded areas like Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Pitkin County and Steamboat Springs for passing and enforcing laws that require people to keep their trash secure. Garbage lures bears when their natural food supply is short.

Aspen and Pitkin County law enforcement officers received calls yesterday afternoon about bears trying to get into garbage at the Airport Business Center and North 40.

Pitkin County’s Lowsky said some bears that have sought out human food supplies during the last three years will continue to seek those sources even if natural food supplies are plentiful this year. It’s a learned behavior that is tough to break.

That’s why it’s important for humans to prevent easy access to trash and other human food sources – even in years when the natural food supply seems bountiful.

“Even if we had 100 percent compliance, we’d still have bears seeking out trash,” he said.

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