Humans to blame for black bear encounters |

Humans to blame for black bear encounters

A bear ambles by the Forest Service welcome gate on Maroon Creek Road. Bear incidents have spurred the agency to create a bear management plan that focuses on education, preparedness and response.
Forest Service/Courtesy photo |

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In the heart of one of Colorado’s more scenic wilderness areas, they raid campsites, snatch food bags and shred tents.

But black bears aren’t to blame for the trouble in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, U.S. Forest Service rangers say.

It’s the people who attract them.

“We don’t really have a bear problem. We have a human problem,” said White River National Forest spokesman Bill Kight, describing how a sharp increase in visitations, along with unsafe food storage practices and a lack of backcountry sense, are fueling potentially dangerous bear encounters along portions of the immensely popular Four-Pass Loop near Aspen.

“We don’t really have a bear problem. We have a human problem.”
Bill Kight
White River National Forest spokesman

Among the more photographed areas in Colorado, the 26-mile route winds through wildflower-laden meadows and over awe-inspiring mountain passes, all of it prime black bear habitat.

Unfortunately, campers don’t always understand that, and they end up leaving out food and garbage where it can be reached easily, perpetuating issues that could threaten free access to the area, frequently recognized as one of the better backpacking destinations in the country.

The issue came to a head in 2012, when two campers were attacked in their tents by black bears during separate incidents — at least one of them after the camper left food wrappers in his tent.

While no attacks have been reported in the area since, the potential has forest rangers on guard.

In mid-August, the Forest Service closed 11 campsites at Crater Lake because of recurring reports of bear activity in which tents had been damaged and food bags snatched from trees. Crater Lake is expected to remain off-limits to campers for the rest of the year, in hopes the bears run out of easy meals and move to another area.

Campers also are being required to store food in bear-?resistant containers while camping in West Maroon Valley, a common requirement in some parts of the country but rare in Colorado.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is considering more severe steps to limit access to the Four-Pass Loop and nearby Conundrum Hot Springs – a controversial issue for Coloradans, who are accustomed to unfettered access.

“We’re going to spend the winter putting our heads together,” said Kight, saying that implementing reservations or fees to control use of the area could be an option. Copious litter and water quality concerns related to human waste are also threats to wild places, he said.

Limiting access wouldn’t be done without a public hearings process.

The issue of marauding bears is hardly unique to Aspen.

Especially in the late summer and early fall, hikers, campers and other backcountry travelers should be on alert for bears prowling for food in preparation for hibernation.

Once bears learn to associate campsites with food, they keep coming back. Over time, they become less fearful of humans – imperiling people and bears alike, wildlife experts say.

In the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, bear activity has been a problem this summer at Lake Como, where hundreds of peak baggers flock during summers in pursuit of crossing Ellingwood Point, Little Bear Peak and Blanca Peak off their “fourteener” list.

During a weekend in early August, some campers had their food bags snatched and packs ripped up, and others resorted to firing warning shots in a bid to keep a persistent bear at bay, according to interviews with people who visited the area.

Using firearms is the wrong approach to safety in bear country, says Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

For starters, bears are unlikely to be deterred by the sound of a gunshot, which they might not associate with bodily harm, he said.

“When we haze a bear, we hit it with a beanbag that gives it a sting,” Lewandowski said. “It relates that people have things that can hurt them.”

Shooting a bear is inhumane and could stir its temper. If seriously wounded, it’s headed for a “long, excruciating, horrible death” in the wild, Lewandowski said.

And campers who open fire on bears are headed for stiff questioning by wildlife officers, Lewandowski said. Unless they can establish they had no alternative but to fire in self-defense, they can face a citation with the possibility of jail time and a fine of up to $1,000.

Wildlife officers are reluctant to try to relocate bears, saying that new bears are likely to move into the same area, especially if food is readily available.

“It’s not a situation that can be fixed,” Lewandowski said. “It can be a problem in the new place or a lot of times they come back. We try to move them 50 miles away from where they were captured. And sometimes they’re back there in a week.”

Instead, campers should focus on their own behavior by practicing “leave no trace” camping principles and by properly storing food bags in trees, well out of a bear’s reach.

Among those who encountered a bear at Lake Como recently was Dan Kleist, 30, of Fort Collins. He and another camper were retrieving a bear bag when they heard a gunshot – a warning shot fired into the ground by a member of their party after a bear wandered into the group’s campsite and came within a few feet of occupied tents.

A few minutes later, they watched as a bear climbed one tree and fruitlessly grasped for a line that held their food.

It ended up wandering off – illustrating that proper food storage can salvage a trip, Kleist said.

“It was kind of a cool experience to see,” he said. “You feel vindicated.”

Kleist said his party took pains to keep food away from the campsite at all times, illustrating that even responsible campers can become targets at heavily used sites.

Lewandowski said campers should make noise, throw objects and harass troublesome bears. Bring bear spray and use it if the bear gets too close, he said.

It might also pay to avoid areas with known bear activity, he said.

“People need to be extra cautious if they’re going to a backcountry area where there are a lot of other people camping,” Lewandowski said.

Those visiting the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness might consider dispersing into less traveled areas, Kight said.

“It could help.”

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