The city’s special events department is considering making changes to the Aspen Backcounty Marathon, due to concerns raised by state wildlife officials concerning the race’s impact on bears.
The marathon, which saw 234 participants this year and 250 in its inaugural run in 2011, includes a stretch through the Smuggler Mountain-Hunter Creek Valley-Red Mountain area, which is prime black bear habitat. The timing of the race, in late August, also coincides with the bears’ prime feeding season before winter hibernation. Known as “hyperphagia,” this is the time of year when bears are compelled to eat up to 20,000 calories per day.
“Undisturbed access to an abundant source of their mast crop is essential for [bears’] survival,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) spokesman Mike Porras wrote in an email. “Pressure from human disturbance could potentially drive them to less productive habitat, and also increases the possibility of bears moving to populated areas to find food.”
Porras said a local CPW wildlife officer either approached the city with the feedback, or gave it when asked, following this year’s backcountry race. The department doesn’t have any official authority over the race, but city community relations director Mitzi Rapkin said the municipal government values CPW as a partner in the special event, and will honor its input.
Porras also wrote that while black bears do not see humans as potential prey, there could be bear-human conflict if a runner were to stumble upon a bear. The bear could then become a threat to human safety.
City officials are reviewing their options, and meeting with members of the local running community to discuss potentially altering the course to avoid the sensitive areas, changing the race date so it doesn’t interfere with the feeding frenzy, or both.
While Rapkin said it’s too soon to discuss specifics of a new backcountry marathon route, one option would be something closer to the course of Aspen Skiing Co.’s Power of Four races, which link Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain in both skiing and mountain biking events.
“If the city and organizers are indeed looking at an alternate route, it is welcome news and we are thankful,” Porras wrote. “Our agency is always prepared to offer our advice and support for events such as these, with the goal of minimizing potential conflicts with wildlife.”
The race, a homegrown event from the city’s special events department, has been seen as a success so far, and expands on the popularity of the more established Golden Leaf Half Marathon held each September. Its route in the past has started in town, taken runners up Smuggler, down to the Hunter Creek Valley, up the backside of Red Mountain to Four Corners, down the Sunnyside Trail, up Cemetery Lane to Tiehack, up and down Tiehack, and back into town with a final leg on the lower potions of Aspen Mountain before ending in Koch Park.
“It’s such a great way to show off Aspen,” Rapkin said.