In Aspen, it’s the year of the bear


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.”


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.

“Bears are feeling more comfortable coming into human environments,” said Stewart Breck, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center who is studying Aspen’s bear problems. “The ultimate answer is to clean up garbage in these urban environments.”

The change in bear diet is perhaps most obvious in what wildlife agents have turned up during recent wintertime den inspections. Even after harsh years when natural foods are scarce, bears here are multiplying rapidly. Some sows are having triplets -- highly unusual and indicative that the bears are finding plenty to eat. (Bears usually have two cubs in normal years, and one or none in lean years.)



On one evening recently, police Sgt. Chip Seamans drove through town, scanning empty streets and alleys for potential bear food. “This is their turf,” he said. “This is where they graze.”

Seamans and his fellow officers have noticed that bears don’t run from humans anymore. Seamans knows this firsthand.

About three weeks ago, he and a partner answered a nighttime call at a spacious hillside house, where a bear had torn open French doors, blithely stomping up steps that were covered with a “bear board” -- a piece of plywood studded with sharp upward-facing nails -- and into the house.

From the patio, Seamans and his partner peered through a window into a darkened kitchen. The refrigerator door had been torn off. But no bear.

The men eased their way into the house. Still no bear.

When Seaman flipped the light switch in the sitting room, his partner’s whisper brought him up short.

“Bear. Big . . . bear.”

Seamans turned slowly around and found himself eye to eye with a 600-pounder. It stared back.


The animal, on all fours, lowered its head as if it were about to charge, so the men inched away, stepping on the bear board as they went, and waited outside for a state wildlife officer to arrive with a tranquilizer gun.

Only when the bear was shot an hour later did it decide to leave the house, blowing past Seamans on its way to the woods. It was found days later, face-down in a watery ditch, dead.

Seamans, 49, a former Los Angeles police officer, observed, “I’d rather deal with an armed gangster any day.”

Like other Aspen police officers and Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies, Seamans soon will be trained in how to fatally shoot a bear. The state’s Division of Wildlife says it’s not likely that its lone officer can be at every potentially dangerous bear encounter.

But even before the others are trained, the Aspen Police Department had assigned Dan Glidden to focus exclusively on bears.

Glidden, 67, retired last year after 17 years as an Aspen cop. But this year he agreed to return as the agency’s wildlife officer, a part-time job that runs during bear season, from May through October. His job: Patrol Aspen’s glitzy streets and look for improperly secured trash.



During his recent morning patrol, Glidden surveyed the trash strewn about the toppled Dumpster. Any of the building’s dozen residents could have failed to secure the latch. “To trace this back, who’s responsible, I don’t know,” Glidden muttered. He jotted down a serial number on the bin and concluded that, ultimately, the owner could face a citation. “The captain of the ship’s responsible.”

A few doors down, Glidden saw evidence that the bear had struck again. In front of a sprawling home, a so-called “bear-proof” plastic trash can was upended. One of the ties that seals the lid was not fastened. “That’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?” Glidden said, striding up the flagstone path to the home’s door to hang a citation.

He noted that the town’s municipal court judge, who lives nearby, recently had a bear break into his house. “I don’t think he’s going to be very sympathetic” if the homeowner challenges the tickets, Glidden said.

The city does not levy a fine for the first offense, but a second offense costs $250, and the cost doubles for each subsequent one. The approach has drawn criticism from some who say that Aspen needs to be more aggressive.

“The law’s not going to do any good if there isn’t the enforcement,” said Breck, the researcher studying Aspen’s bear problem.

Glidden and others at the Police Department argue that it’s more important to get people to change their behavior than to collect fines. They say that 80% to 90% of residents don’t reoffend. “Our job isn’t just to have people suffer monetary fines,” said department spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro. “We want compliance.”


Most of the town’s approximately 6,500 full-time residents, police argue, understand the importance of keeping trash inaccessible to bears. But Aspen sees tens of thousands of tourists and temporary residents, who usually don’t arrive with bear safety in mind.

On another mid-September morning, Glidden spun through the alleys of downtown, eyeballing Dumpsters tucked behind brick buildings housing high-end restaurants, fur shops and condos. They were tightly sealed. He drove past an Alpine-style house and noted that he had written the owner a ticket for improper storage weeks ago, spurring the purchase of a new bear-proof canister. It was locked.

He pulled back in to the station hours later, proclaiming it the first morning he had seen no violations or signs of bears. Then he began chatting with his supervisor, Gretchen Born.

Just before Glidden’s 6:30 a.m. shift, Born had been awakened by pounding on the door of her apartment a few blocks from the station.

It was a bear.