Tony Vagneur: Bears in the wild seems barely an occurrence anymore | AspenTimes.com

Tony Vagneur: Bears in the wild seems barely an occurrence anymore

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We ducked under young aspen saplings, bent over from a late spring snowstorm, and I frequently had my head down, leaning from one side of the horse or the other to avoid being knocked to the ground. As we reached the end of the narrow copse and I pulled my head up, much like a swimmer going for air, a fleeting glimpse of movement ahead of us in the forest caught my eye. Bear? No, couldn't be.

We were near a watering hole and off to our left several cows languished on the bank, replenished and ready to head out into the wild, gathering grass with a tenacity that astounds humans when they realize cows only have one row of teeth. Think about that when you ask the butcher for grass-fed beef.

There it was again, that brief slither of movement through the woods and then, as I looked to ascertain its provenance, the face of a young bear, framed in serviceberry branches, looking directly at me.

The horses hadn't seen it yet, so I got a long, peaceful look at the face, one filled with curiosity and wonder. At least that's how it appeared. Then, poof, like any good bear it dropped down on all fours and disappeared into the underbrush. This was an intriguing bear for unlike many of his cousins, he wasn't running off but was rather trying to figure out me and my horses and how we fit into his world.

Then, as we prepared to move on up the trail, the face appeared again, much closer than before, about 15 yards away. He wasn't shy, although he seemed very unsure about what he was seeing, and after a few cursory seconds, he dropped and disappeared for the last time.

Big deal, you say, seeing a bear in the wild. Well, yes it is a big deal like it always has been — they seem to be far and few between out in the wild lately and it's a thrill to see one in its natural habitat. On any given night in the fall, you can drive or walk around the West End and see 10 to 12 bruins wandering around, some of them with cubs. But you seldom can find one in the wild except by accident.

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For the record, we were in a place off-limits to mechanical or motorized travel, so it's not unusual to see wildlife unhabituated to people, although this bear had probably seen a few. I'm always amazed when riding in designated wilderness areas how many mountain bike tracks there are on the trail.

This is the year for bears in the wild, it appears. Berry bushes are lush with hanging fruit — the various types fall off the branch and stain your clothes as you ride or walk through. Serviceberries, chokecherries, wild blueberries are plentiful; haven't ridden through any jack-oaks lately so no comment on acorns.

It's always interesting to hear people say we have a large bear population around Aspen. They should be saying we have a large bear population in town, not so much in the wild. And let's face it — once a bear gets a bite to eat in town, it's no longer wild. It was disheartening a couple of years ago to have a bear jump in front of my truck late at night, and rather than dive into the woods at several opportunities, the poor thing galloped down the asphalt in front of us, waiting for a driveway to duck into. Say what you want — that was a domesticated bear.

People ought to go to a zoo to familiarize themselves with bears before they make damned fools out of themselves flipping out over the ones we see in civilization. One year, a big, ol' black bear had spent the night in a huge cottonwood across from my house. By 8:30 a.m., people's cars lined my long driveway, lawn chairs were placed around the yard at will and people got pissed when I finally parked a truck across the driveway to stop further trespassing. "When do you think the bear will come down," someone asked? "Not until all you people get out of here," was my reply.

In the heat of battle, like last summer, some people said "we have a bear problem," as they tried to take selfies with a sow and her two cubs. Clearly, we don't have a bear problem.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.