A 12-gauge beanbag shot — a less-than-lethal physical deterrent as a bear-management practice — resulted in the unintended death of a cub on Friday night in Snowmass Village.
Authorities responded to a call around 10 p.m. Friday night after a known bear family of a mother and two cubs was spotted with what appeared to be an undelivered box of packaged snacks, Police Chief Brian Olson said.
“Somebody left a dolly with several boxes of Doritos and potato chips out on the walkway. Looks like it was getting delivered, then something happened and it never got delivered,” he said. “These bears, about 10 o’clock at night, found the boxes. They were feeding on them when we got a call.”
Olson described this family as “good bears” who have been regulars in the area because of the ample crabapple trees.
“Unfortunately, they’re on the crabapple tree attraction at the moment, which brings them close to all our popular areas because that’s where we had the brilliant notion to plant crabapple trees in the past,” he said, adding that crabapples are part of a bear’s natural diet.
But in this instance, the untended dolly of treats resulted in an unnecessary death.
“An officer responded and spied the bears … about 10 yards away. [He] bean-bagged the mom, and mom took off,” Olson said. “[The officer] decided to bean-bag one of the other bears, which at this time, they’re getting big and puffy and looking probably a lot older than they actually are. This second beanbag contacted it just kind of midway between the front and back legs and penetrated the abdomen and created a fatal wound.”
Ultimately, Snowmass animal control officers had to euthanize the bleeding bear, he continued.
“The officer feels terrible, as does my whole staff. Most of my staff had to come out for that,” Olson said.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office also responded to the scene. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo was not immediately available for comment.
To one resident familiar with the incident, there was no reason for the cub to be subjected to the beanbag shot.
“He should’ve used bear mace,” the man, who requested anonymity, said of the responding officer. “There’s no such thing as mistakes; there’s carelessness. A round like that is going to be fatal to a little baby. [I’m] trying to get baby cub screams out of my head.”
Still, Olson stands by his officer’s actions and confirmed there will be no disciplinary measures taken, as the officer did not break protocol.
“He did everything right; it just ended up tragic,” Olson said. “This is not a situation where I would take any kind of action. His having to deal with it and finish the situation … is enough of a drag. I can’t imagine there’s anything I can do to make it worse.”
According to the Get Smart Bear Society — which “works hard to ensure people and bears safely and respectfully coexist,” according to its website — “physical deterrents include water, stones, paintball marker, bear spray, beanbags and rubber bullets. They work by creating pain and discomfort that a bear learns to avoid.”
Ginna Gordon, supervisor of community response officers for the Aspen Police Department, did not respond to Friday’s incident since it was outside of her jurisdiction. However, Gordon confirmed from her own personal experience that sound alone is not always an effective deterrent.
“A couple of weeks ago, I had a bear in town … I had a blowhorn on me, so I was using it, and he wasn’t deterred at all by that,” she said.
An incident like the one on Friday night “is our worst nightmare,” Gordon added.
That said, without being on the scene, she couldn’t comment on the tactics used.
“It’s just really tragic. It’s completely dependent on the circumstances, and the reality is we’re dealing with wildlife,” she said. “They’re always changing, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that come into play.”
Olson estimated that the incident was the first time a bear had to be put down in Snowmass Village in about 10 years.
“The ratio’s on our side,” he said. “For as many times we do something like this — hundreds of times during a summer, year after year — this hasn’t happened. It’s been an awful long time since there's been an injury or death to any animal.”
While everyone involved is mourning the death of the cub, its mother and sibling are presumably getting ready for hibernation, Olson said.
“They’ve actually been really good bears, and they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ve identified a place to sleep for the winter and they’re close to calling it a day.”
But that doesn’t mean bear season is over, Gordon warned.
“The first prong of defense that our community has is locking up our garbage and removing attractants,” she said. “Really, first and foremost, the most important thing we can do to prevent any type of human-bear conflict is to secure any bear attractants we have in town.”