You can smell the grease before you see it. The pungent scent of fat rising up from a grease trap behind an Asian fusion restaurant overpowers the alleyway. As a human, it’s hard to ignore. For a bear, it’s impossible.
“I patrol these alleyways every morning. I have a pattern and a routine,” says Dan Glidden, inspecting the door of a trash storage shed bent out of shape by a frustrated black bear. This isn’t the first time Glidden, Aspen’s part-time, semi-retired wildlife enforcement officer, has visited this site. He’s already written the restaurant two tickets for improper trash storage, totaling $750.
The Roaring Fork and Eagle Valleys, which include the ski towns of Aspen and Snowmass Village, are home to some 1,250 black bears—or nearly one bear per every square mile. Here, nestled against the Elk Mountains, humans and bears clash in unprecedented numbers. And Glidden, a former police officer with 17 years on the force, is Aspen’s front line defence against black bears. Actually, he’s their only defence.
The campgrounds surrounding Maroon Bells were a bear-human conflict hot spot in summer 2014, with careless campers leaving food scraps out and failing to use bear-proof cannisters on the trails. In one case, hikers even threw food at a black bear on a trail to get it to retreat.
Three mornings a week, Glidden patrols Aspen’s alleyways, looking for evidence of bear break-ins—and writing tickets, when he can.
“For me, bears are all I do,” he says. “Bears in trash, bears in garages, bears in cars, bears in houses.”
He had hoped 2014 would be a good natural food year after a promising spring, but it turned out be “horrible.”
“[In 2013], I think we had 54 bear calls, total. This year we’re over 200 and climbing. They’re hungry. There’s no food in the hills.”
There’s little evidence out there to show bears actually prefer cheeseburgers to chokecherries—even if the cheeseburger has a higher caloric value. When they have the choice, bears will still eat their typical diet of berries, nuts, and insects. But between 2004 and 2012, bear-human conflict rose to peak levels due to inclement weather that caused berry crops to fail around Aspen. Five of those years saw between 20 and 70 bears relocated or killed. Increasingly, bears are lured into town by the aroma of fatty foods.
According to Glidden, it’s Aspen’s downtown and commercial area, and the tourists they depend upon, that pose the biggest problem. When visitors arrive in the summer, they’re unfamiliar with what it takes to peacefully coexist with bears. Glidden goes from hotel to hotel leaving information pamphlets, but it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference. “They have no idea,” he says with a sigh.
And then there’s Aspen’s nightlife.
“If you leave the bears alone they might stay up in a tree all day and then come down at night when things calm down,” says Glidden as we circle around East Cooper Ave., Aspen’s pedestrian mall. “Of course then you have to deal with the 2:30 a.m. drunk bar crowd that wants to chase and pet the bears.”
Last summer, Erin Smiddy, an off-duty police officer, was walking home from the bars when a startled black bear jumped out from behind a dumpster and swiped at her. Though not a predaceous move, a few defensive swipes from a 400-pound bear can be fatal. Fortunately, Smiddy only ended up with stitches.
I ask Glidden about the lid-free garbage containers I had seen downtown.
“Apparently several years ago the city bought $250,000 worth of those containers. Last year, [in 2013], they put them down in the courtyard,” says an incredulous Glidden. “You just want to ask ‘What were you thinking?!’ How can I write someone a ticket for not having an approved bear-resistant container when you’re placing open containers in the core area?”
But he has. By mid-October, Glidden had handed out 30 tickets to homeowners and businesses for improperly stored trash. Not that he doesn’t try to do everything he can to avoid it by working with the people, he says. And people seem to love him for it.
"Bears are all I do. Bears in trash, bears in garages, bears in cars, bears in houses."
Aspen enforcement officer
Aspen wildlife enforcement officer Dan Glidden gathers photo evidence of an unsecured garbage can that has been torn apart by a black bear.
We can barely travel a city block without someone calling out to him or greeting him with a friendly wave.
“Yo Willy!” Glidden calls out as we round a corner to see a man packing up an RV. He asks if the man is headed up to Lake Powell, the reservoir on the Colorado River that straddles the Utah-Arizona border.
The man called Willy makes his way over to the enforcement vehicle. “How are things? I imagine it’s ramping up right now.”
“Yeah they’re hungry. And not much food,” replies Glidden, ducking to lean out the window.
Willy shakes his head. “Nah, there’s nothing in the high country. It hit quick and then it was gone real fast. The mushrooms, berries and the nuts are all gone. So now they come downtown.”
“Dine and dash,” Glidden affirms with a nod and waves him off.
Okay, so it’s not like Aspen’s residents are unaware there’s a problem. The real question is, do they care?
It’s no secret Aspen attracts some of America’s most affluent people. The median home value here is upwards of $2.5 million, and in 2011 The Wall Street Journal reported the cheapest house for sale here was a trailer, selling for half a million dollars. So when Glidden starts penning tickets for $250, $500, or $999—the maximum allowed with a mandatory summons—I have to ask, does it matter?
“$250 is chump change here,” Glidden says, reaching for his wallet. “I’ve got $250 in my pocket.” For some folks, he says, it will take a trip to court.
But, for the most part, violations by the rich and famous have been few and far between. More often, it’s property management companies who will do anything they can to try and skimp on containers in residential areas, Glidden explains.
It’s no mystery why people want to live here. Under the October sun, the aspens burn bright and grass turns gold with fallen leaves. On the radio, the announcer promises temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s for the week. And the classic, impeccably maintained old Victorians speak for themselves. This is a slice of life most will never get to experience short of winning the lottery, but even then they’ll be among the town’s poor. This is the place where billionaires come to relax. The Estee Lauder family owns real estate here; so does Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and the Koch brothers.
“Now this is a prime example here,” Glidden says, bringing the vehicle to a stop behind a white garage where several bins have been overturned. He jumps out of the vehicle to examine the refuse spilled on the pavement. The approved bear-resistant bins have been torn apart. Squished grapes and spoiled yogurt ooze out of the deep claw and bite marks. I guess that’s why they’re called bear-resistant, not bear-proof.
But Glidden is focused on one feature in particular.
“String?!” He holds up a flimsy, moist piece of white twine being used to keep the can closed, mouth agape in disbelief. “Give me a break!” He pulls out his camera phone and begins taking pictures. Snap. Snap. Snap.
“This is going to be a ticket here. It’s an approved container but it’s no longer secured, and they already had a warning.”
Glidden heads over to his car and begins scribbling on a bright yellow ticket. Then he takes it to the front door.
When he returns, I ask him whether or not people are afraid of bears here. Those claw marks ran deep, after all.
“No,” he says lightly. “It’s just, ‘Oh, they’re so cute.’ You look at some of these people and it’s ‘Oh my God, how have you managed to survive this long in life?’”
On our way back to the Pitkin County Courthouse, Glidden recalls a granite headstone he once saw in one of Aspen’s old, picturesque cemeteries.
“It said, ‘Nature never forgives. Man sometimes does. God always does.’” He turns onto East Main Street.
“Nature is very unforgiving. Animals can be very unforgiving.”
"Nature is very unforgiving. Animals can be very unforgiving."
Aspen enforcement officer
A bear-resistant public garbage can at the Snowmass Village Mall. In Aspen, the downtown area still has open-top garbage bins.
Out at the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation near Silt, Colo., Al King is eagerly awaiting a shipment of orphaned bear cub triplets from Steamboat Springs.
From the frontage road, a hodgepodge of different sized cages is just visible against the backdrop of Rifle Falls State Park. Little black blobs move about behind the bars.
Founded in 1984 by Nanci Limbach in honor of her grandmother, the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation is now a sprawling complex of rehabilitation and education buildings connected by a winding gravel path. Though animals largely come and go from the facility with old carriers serving as the only testament to their memory, there are a few full-time residents—those to whom nature, and man, have been the most unforgiving.
Inside the Foundation’s office I find Al King and Jon Wilson preparing lunch for the animals.
King, the chairman of the Foundation’s board, is a tall and lean fellow, with a sandy-colored beard and large spectacles. Right away, it’s hard to picture him doing anything else. In the 20-plus years he;s worked here, he's handled more than 300 bears.
The cubs, he explains, are brought in by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, often in situations where the mother had gotten into trouble and had to be put down.
“The biggest concern is that the cubs have learned their mom’s habits,” he says, taking a seat in the reclining office chair. Old sketches of mountain lions and bobcats decorate the office wall behind him. “If it’s a yearling cub, a lot of the times they’ll kill it because they think the cub has already learned the best food is behind the restaurant.”
2014 was an exceptionally bad year for bears, with 17 cubs, five of which were the offspring of trash bears, in the Foundation’s care by mid-October. The most they ever had at one time, says King, was 26. That was a few years ago in another bad food year.
Part of the cub issue lies in bears’ reproductive cycle. Bears are the slowest reproducing mammal in North America, taking five years to reach sexual maturity and giving birth every two years. Most importantly, bears experience delayed implantation, which means that fertilized eggs won’t implant on the mother’s uterine wall until she has denned down for the season. If the female fails to accrue enough body fat—below 20 percent—her body will simply reabsorb the embryo for energy. Put simply, nature has a way of compensating and adjusting for bad food years.
But when you have a good food year followed by a bad food year, says King, you see super healthy mothers giving birth to as many as three cubs who can’t find food when they emerge from their den come spring. And trash is only exacerbating this cycle, allowing mother bears to artificially build up enough body fat in bad food years or droughts even though natural forage isn’t available.
As a result, you’re seeing a surplus of starving cubs wandering around the West, explains King.
Wilson interrupts from the office’s makeshift kitchen to ask how much horse meat to give each resident bobcat—the former pets of Wyoming oil and gas workers.
Last fall CPW was encouraging people to hunt more bears—a move that didn’t go unopposed by animal activists.
“We kind of leave the bear huggy stuff to everyone else,” King explains when I ask him about it. “We need to reduce these bears because otherwise they’re just going to die.”
A truck barrels down Highway 70, near the small town of Silt, Colo., in the western part of the state.
Outside, it’s feeding time for the cubs. Juicy watermelons and ruddy apples, marked with the prints of little mouths, litter the cement floor of their cages. Right now, the cubs are in hyperphagia—the time period when they need to eat 20,000 calories a day to build up body fat for the winter. At the foundation, each bear receives a whopping 15 pounds of food per day.
But these bears won’t den down any time soon, King says, as we approach the two-story cages. They’ll spend the winter months awake, fattening up so they can be released come June. Those that did manage to pack on the pounds are already up hibernating at 8,000 feet at a satellite facility near King’s house.
The six cubs behind the foundation’s office vary in personality, and color.
Despite their name, black bears, especially those outside of Eastern populations, can be any color, from pure blonde to coal black, even within the same litter. And because a female can be impregnated by more than one male bear at a time, it’s impossible to determine which bears are siblings by color alone.
But there is one thing most bears here do have in common—they miss their mothers.
“If you’ve ever heard bears whine, it sounds just like they’re saying ‘Mama,’” says King, locking eyes with a small bear lodged in a fake tree. “Sometimes they’ll just sit up there for hours when they first arrive, and you’ll hear this forlorn ‘mama’ sound they make.”
Today, the bears are quiet.
In the distance, a black mare runs wild and free. Here, in the shadows of tin roofs, the bears rock. A cinnamon-bear pokes his paws through the cage's gaps, desperate to feel the warm sun. His dark eyes search the landscape as he gnaws in boredom on thin wire bars. The time may come when he can return to the wild and taste serviceberries and chokecherries once more. But a long winter lies ahead. And spring holds no promises.
An orphaned black bear cub presses his face against the bars of his cage at the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation in Silt, Colo.
By the end of November, CPW had killed 10 bears in Aspen and Pitkin County.
In the region, CPW manager Kevin Wright is the one who takes the call when there’s a nuisance bear in town. He’s the one who sets the trap, the one who drugs the bear. And he’s the one who pulls it out and shoots it.
But Wright is also the one who, ultimately, has been given the directive to clean up Aspen’s mess.
“People think we’ll just come and remove a bear that’s causing a problem,” says Wright on a November morning at the end of bear season. “Well, first of all, where are we supposed to take this bear where there’s not another bear that will kill it, where there’s a good natural food supply, and where there’s not a house within 10 miles? It’s almost impossible.”
Still, in 2007 CPW removed and relocated well over 150 bears from the area. But Wright says it didn’t resolve the issue.
A 2011 study by Colorado State University researchers in Aspen showed that while education and enforcement are often touted by wildlife managers and local government as a means to reduce conflict, enforcement is really the only way.
“Aspen has chosen not to aggressively enforce the ordinance,” underlines Wright, adding they haven’t ticketed enough; they haven’t removed the crabapple trees; and they’re wasting city funds on the promotion of two-day events rather than the ongoing bear problem.
In 2007, one of the worst food years the area has seen, Parks and Wildlife officers were in the local paper for three straight weeks in hopes of educating people.
“It was photos of us with a dead bear, us skinning a bear. For 21 days straight. And it made zero difference. The only thing it did was get me flipped off when I went through town.”
So, while Aspen chooses not to enforce the ordinance first adopted in the late 1990s, Wright is tasked with euthanizing more and more nuisance bears—including the cubs that can’t be taken to the Schneegas Foundation.
“It’s a real hard thing to have to put down a cub. They haven’t had a chance at life at all, and here you are putting ‘em down.”
"It's a real hard thing to have to put down a cub. They haven't had a chance at life at all."
Colorado Parks & Wildlife distrct manager
An orphaned bear cub rests atop a barrel in his cage at the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation. When the bears first arrive, many will whine for hours, in a sort of forlorn 'mama' call, says Al King, the foundation's board chairman. Being around their own kind helps the cubs to adjust.
But Wright doesn’t think rehab is the answer, either. Some of those bears, he believes, go onto be repeat offenders in other areas of the state. Instead, he advocates for bear-resistant containers, enforcement, and even community dumpsters instead of curbside pick-up.
Such steps could be the only way to staunch the bear invasion before things get really bad.
“We have a lot more conflicts than we ever used to,” he says. “In 2009, you could go into town in Aspen on any one night and see 20 different bears.”
In light of the attack on off-duty police officer Erin Smiddy last summer, Wright worries about conflicts escalating in the Roaring Fork and Eagle Valleys.
“Sooner of later there’s going to be a breaking point. If Aspen continues the route they’re going, I would predict that a fatality would happen.”
Since 2007, bears have injured a number of people, some severely, but never fatally. In almost every incidence, bears who had broken into homes were surprised by homeowners and reacted aggressively to protect their food source—the refrigerator.
“I don’t understand why Aspen won’t do a better job at enforcement,” Wright reiterates. “They could handle it right now. They could nail it. They could put a stop to most of this—if they had the political will to do it.”
"If Aspen continues the route they're going, I would predict that a fatality would happen."
Colorado Parks & Wildlife distrct manager
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