It’s only a matter of time before someone tangles with an aggressive bear at the Pitkin County Landfill, since about 16 bears now regularly use the site as an easy-access buffet.
That’s what Pitkin County Solid Waste Manager Cathy Hall told Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday, during a strategy session on how to address the landfill’s ongoing bear problem.
“To my knowledge we haven’t had an aggressive bear/human interaction, but with the number of bears we have, it’s bound to happen,” she said.
There are several ways to deter bears from noshing on human food waste, Hall said, including the currently used “hazing” approach where landfill employees shoo the bruins off with rubber bullets or bear spray.
Another option is to install electric fencing around the landfill, an approach that Commissioner Michael Owsley said has proven extremely effective at protecting the beehive he keeps at home.
The downside of fencing, Hall said, is its cost: Constructing fence around the entire landfill could run as high as $150,000.
The third option is also the most controversial: a controlled hunt where sportsmen are issued a limited number of tags every fall, and are allowed to bag a bear on the landfill grounds.
Hunting has been used for several years as a means of controlling the bear population throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, noted Kevin Wright, the Aspen district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).
“In our area, we are trying to suppress the population, to drive it down, and we’ve increased the number of [bear] hunting licenses substantially in recent years,” he said.
“Hunting stirs up emotion on both sides of the issue, but there are some sportsmen who would be happy to go in and harvest some bears out of the landfill.”
Wright said the hunt could potentially occur only on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, when the landfill is closed to the public.
To reduce bear pressure on the landfill, Hall estimated that about six bear tags would be issued in the first year.
Owsley — and, to a lesser extent, Commissioner Rob Ittner — objected to the idea of a controlled bear hunt, claiming it would show disrespect for the animals.
But there was wider support among the commissioners for the idea of continuing the existing “hazing” program while fencing off the sections of the landfill that bears were most attracted to.
“We ask our citizens to secure their garbage and yet somehow we don’t lock our garbage up?” Owsley said. “We really have to do that I think.”
To bring down the cost of fencing the whole landfill, Commissioner Steve Child suggested that the composting area be fenced first, since that’s the largest bear attractor.
“If you did it just around the part where the bears are attracted to digging in, the cost of that could be cut down,” he said.
Still, Wright of CPW worried that installing fencing without introducing a complimentary annual “culling” bear hunt could simply push the hungry bears into the nearby neighborhood of Aspen Village, and Commissioner Rachel Richards agreed.
“I think if you want a long-term solution you’ve got to do both” fencing and culling, she said.
The bear problem at the landfill is made worse by the fact that the hills above the facility are ideal bear habitat, replete with oak brush, chokecherry and service berry bushes, Wright said.
The problem is also exacerbated by the size of the county’s composting program: food waste is trucked in from as far afield as Montrose and Rifle, since the Pitkin County Landfill is the only one in the region where food waste composting takes place.
Yet Hall said the composting program has been a moneymaker for the county, bringing in about $35,000 from more than 1,000 tons of food waste last year.
Hall is aiming to triple the size of the composting program over the next year, she said.