As bear season winds down, state wildlife managers are getting a better understanding of the area’s animal population, and continue to preach the mantra that unsecured trash leads to their demise.
And despite Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s ongoing message that human-bear conflict is a result of irresponsible behavior, particularly in Aspen, it continues.
New trash and recycling receptacles installed by the city parks department in recent years are partially open on the top and have a disc-like cover which, city officials have said in the past, make it very difficult for wildlife to get inside. They also reason that the cans qualify as bear-resistant because they are emptied multiple times a day and night.
That wasn’t the case last week when a bear was able to reach into the can in front of City Hall (where violators of the ordinance must go to pay their fines), and get a full bag of garbage.
“Obviously they are not bear-proof,” said CPW District Wildlife Manager Kevin Wright, who is charged with the unenviable task of euthanizing and relocating problem bears addicted to human food.
“It’s frustrating after all of these years that they have non-bear-proof trash cans,” he added. “It’s a huge step backwards. … We just went back in time.”
Senior officials in City Hall didn’t respond to requests for comment but Mayor Mick Ireland said he has asked that the new cans be removed.
The parks department earlier this summer rationalized that the previously used trash cans, which were a heavy-duty box with a latch, were unsanitary, unsafe and not as functional as the new ones. And instead of opening the somewhat heavy lid, people were throwing trash near the can, providing easy pickings for bears. The new cans were brought in to combat that and encourage recycling.
“There’s a balance there,” Ireland said and recognized the catch-22 situation.
Meanwhile, bears are still roaming the streets of downtown Aspen and outlying neighborhoods. Hibernation can still be a month away for some bears, especially because their natural food sources are nonexistent, and trash and crab apple trees are plentiful in Aspen.
“In bad years, it shows where our weaknesses are,” Wright said. “If there is a bear in Aspen, you have to ask yourself why are they there?”
This year is definitely a bad year for area bears, who come down from the drought-covered high country in search of food. Without their typical diet of service berries, acorns, gamble oak and other natural food sources, the bears were hungry.
And when a bruin repeats the offense of getting into trash or breaking into a home, they are forever tainted and must be, according to CPW policy, put down.
This year, there were nine bears euthanized between Aspen and Old Snowmass; two in the Basalt and Fryingpan areas. Another six were “translocated” out of Aspen; two out of Basalt and two out of Carbondale. Valleywide, including the Crystal River Valley, nine bears, mostly orphaned cubs, were sent to a rehabilitation center.
This year was one of the highest in terms of bears meeting their fate by vehicle — 22 were killed on Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
“That’s a lot,” Wright acknowledged.
The CPW has upped its number of available hunting licenses in response to an increase in bear-human conflicts, but in bad years like this one, there are more euthanizations and roadkills than animals being harvested by hunters.
The success rate of harvesting a bear is low; only between 9 and 10 percent of all licenses issued result in kills, said Brad Petch, Northwest senior terrestrial biologist at the CPW.
The CPW this year made 1,485 licenses available in the vast area between Independence Pass, Vail and the Flat Tops wilderness. Total harvest numbers will not be known for months since hunting season is still in progress but so far, it’s estimated that 96 bears have succumbed to hunters.
In 2008, the CPW made 585 licenses available and there were 43 harvests. The number of licenses made available have steadily increased since.
The CPW would prefer controlling the bear population by harvest rather than the other less-desirable fatalities.
“Where we can, we’d like to get the licenses into the hands of the hunting public,” Petch said.
In the Roaring Fork Valley and the immediate surrounding area, an estimated 12 bears were harvested through the end of October, said Julie Mao, a terrestrial biologist at CPW.
Meanwhile, one study conducted over the past several years in the Aspen area and Roaring Fork Valley, suggests that the upper valley has one of the highest density of bears in Colorado, and the population is much larger than previously believed, Petch said.
Once the results of the study are complete, anticipated later this year, the CPW will develop a long-term management plan for the bear population in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.
A second study also looked at the behavior of bears and how much available anthropogenic food sources contribute to the animals dwelling in urban areas, and how urban areas influence population levels.
Fifty bears were collared in the Aspen area and their location was tracked by GPS every half hour. In bad years like 2007, 2009 and this year, the bears were in town and in the surrounding neighborhoods, said Dave Lewis, a masters degree student at Colorado State University who is working on the study with the CPW.
In years when natural food sources were abundant, those bears stayed in the forest, as close as a 10-minute walk out of Aspen, Lewis said.
“There is a behavioral shift and they’ll use town in a bad year,” he said. “Trash is the No. 1 food attractant by a long ways.”