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Can we bear it?

Paul Andersen

Last week a local newspaper columnist jokingly referred to bears as “giant rats.” This grim urban image is contrary to the true majesty of the beast, one of the greatest mammals in the wilds of North America.But when you live with bears on an almost daily basis, as many Aspenites do, then bears can become just another pesky scavenger. Some neighborhoods have morphed into petting zoos where bears are tolerated if benign, but killed if they overstep their bounds.A century ago, the only good bear was a dead bear, except for occasional pet bear cubs chained up for entertainment. Big game cavorting through town would have been a certain target for frontiersmen with trigger itch.Now we try to live with bears as they move in on Aspen’s all-you-can-eat Dumpster buffet. We engage in a cross-species charity that makes us willing to endure expenses, hassles and risks in order to save the bears from their own appetites.We try to bear-proof our homes and our trash containers with elaborate Chinese puzzle latches. Some freeze their stinky trash and put it out only on trash days, viewing bears in their back yards as harbingers of the wilds and respecting their right to be there.Living with bears took on special significance for me when I recently came close to becoming a bruin’s main course. I’m kind of thin, so my scrawny carcass wouldn’t have made as good a meal as the Dumpster at McDonald’s, but for one perilous moment I was a fast-food opportunity.I was riding my mountain bike on the Scout Trail, a narrow single-track that contours along the rim of Glenwood Canyon before dropping into Glenwood Springs. I was alone, it was evening, and I noticed fresh bear scat on the trail. I rang my bike bell as I cruised through tight undergrowth that brushed my handlebars on both sides. Heading around a sharp bend, there came the sudden crashing of brush on the uphill side of me, just a few feet away. To my right, I heard a scratching noise and turned to see twin bear cubs shimmying up a tree. I was literally eyeball-to-eyeball with them.With Momma Bear on one side and her two babies on the other, I was the smoked ham in a bear sandwich. Adrenaline coursed through me like a jolt of electricity, and I made a Lance Armstrong sprint. I may have left some scat of my own on the trail that day.Once I got my heart out of my throat, I thought of what Dave Foreman had said in Aspen a few days earlier. Foreman, a founder of Earth First!, described “The Rewilding of America,” a program that seeks to re-establish big predators as top-down managers for complete and healthy ecosystems.The idea has merit if we hope to reinvigorate our wild lands in ways it took evolution tens of thousands of years to achieve. Granting large animals the right to life requires an act of humility for humans who must then share the top of the food chain. Having almost been part of that food chain admittedly gave me qualms, but I realized that living with bears is our first test. If we can adapt to this forced cohabitation, then we might be able to allow nature the chief role in making our wild lands more holistic.Since garbage and trash are the prime motivation for human/bear conflicts, then we must work extra hard to manage that one aspect of our lives. If we care about bears beyond their perceived role as “giant rats,” then we need to act – and soon.There are risks to living with large, potentially dangerous animals, but there are wonderful rewards to nurturing cross-species generosity. Diligent and effective trash management is worth the effort if it leads to a better caretaker role for man in nature.Paul Andersen can bear it if you can. His column appears on Mondays.


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