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In Aspen, it's the year of the bear

With disturbances and attacks on the rise, police in the Colorado resort town patrol for unsecured trash containers that attract the beasts -- and are learning to shoot to kill.

October 03, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

ASPEN, COLORADO — Dan Glidden hit the brakes on his Aspen Police Department hybrid SUV. The evidence of wrongdoing was scattered all over the street.

Piles of soiled paper and plastic wrap. A torn plastic coffee cup. An empty ketchup bottle. And, on the curb, an overturned garbage bin with one of its two hatches hanging open.

Glidden began to search for the lawbreaker -- not the bear who had knocked over the Dumpster in search of goodies, but the person who had failed to secure the lid against what has become a nightly incursion in this ritzy mountain resort. As Glidden said earlier as he drove past row after row of bulging trash bins, "Why are you going to go eat berries when you can really chow down?"

Black bears have lived in this fertile, 8,000-foot-high valley for millenniums, long before the arrival of skiers, celebrity homes and a shop that sells Prada. But suddenly, beginning this summer, the bruins have gone wild.

"People say, 'There are bears in most of these mountain towns,' " said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the state's Division of Wildlife. "But not like this. Not like this year."

In August alone, Aspen police responded to 275 bear calls. In the same month last year, there were 18.

Three Aspen residents were injured -- two in August, one in September -- when bears broke into their homes and attacked them. Wildlife officials killed 11 bears near Aspen that became too aggressive toward humans, and relocated an additional 22.

Night after night, police returned to headquarters and a reminder of Aspen's problem: a bear who had taken up residence in an oak tree outside the station. Officers had to duck under the bear, perched in the tree, to get inside.

So many bears have been killed and relocated that the number of encounters has returned to normal in recent weeks. Still, the incidents have forced the town and state to contemplate the once unthinkable: Local police are now being trained to kill bears because wildlife officials are overwhelmed.

Aspen is considering spraying the crab apple trees that line its streets to destroy fruit that lures bears into town. State officials talk about resuming the spring hunt for bears that was banned in 1992 on humanitarian grounds. One Aspen businessman proposes a form of shock therapy.

After bears repeatedly destroyed the outdoor freezer behind his cafe this summer, Bill Dinsmoor installed an electrified mat at the urging of wildlife officials. It seems to work. Why not expand that approach, he asked, explaining that "it's better than killing them."

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Aspen seems to be the epicenter of this unusual year for bear-human conflicts in Colorado. Though other mountain states report no significant rise in incidents, wildlife officials in Colorado, where 8,000 to 12,000 black bears roam, say their officers are so busy responding to frantic calls for help that they haven't had time to quantify the problem.

In the most highly publicized incident, a 74-year-old woman who had been feeding bears for years near her home outside the southwestern Colorado town of Ouray was mauled to death in August. When authorities moved in to recover the corpse, they had to shoot a bear that aggressively tried to take back the body. A second bear shot at the scene a day later was found to have human flesh in its stomach.

More than 40 bears have been killed in the state this year.

For decades in Aspen and elsewhere, bears had occasionally forced their way into homes, tearing open French doors, ripping off sliding glass doors or simply bashing their way through windows. But not until recent years have the incidents occurred so often, and with such violent results, officials say.

The first bear attack in Aspen this year happened late Aug. 18, when a woman was startled by a 400-pounder that smashed through French doors into her home on Sneaky Lane, a narrow byway that runs up against the lush bottomlands of the Crystal River. The bear swatted at the woman as she tried to open another door to let it out, deeply gouging her in the chest and back.

The woman ran, leaving the bear inside the kitchen nibbling on chocolate toffee and other candy. After the beast finally left the house, wildlife officials tracked it down and killed it.

On a recent afternoon, Hampton drove past the home and pointed to lush greenery on the other side of the lane. Hanging in the bushes were red serviceberries, traditional food for local black bears.

"It's not that there isn't natural food available," Hampton said.

There have been other bad years for bear visits -- notably 2007, when the serviceberry bushes died off in an exceptionally dry spring, sending the huge animals into Aspen's trash cans.

This spring was very wet, and many berry bushes rotted. But even with some of their natural food sources surviving, the bears are displaying a marked preference for human food.

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