The bears are back in town

Story by | Aspen Daily News Editor | October 2, 2022

Matt Yamashita, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, came to the Pitkin County Library on Thursday to talk about bears, but he knew he was walking into a proverbial lion’s den. Of the roughly 40 community members and stakeholders who attended the meeting, hosted by the Colorado Bear Coalition, many were representatives of local law enforcement agencies and some of Yamashita’s colleagues at CPW — but many were residents angry about the euthanization of a sow and her four cubs in late August.

It was the first meeting goal: “to gain an ­understanding of why the sow and her four cubs were [euthanized] — to really understand why that happened,” Brenda Lee, founder and president of the Colorado Bear Coalition, said at the outset.

Yamashita acknowledged the emotions around the decision.

 

“Before we go into some of the details on this, Brenda stated it well: we’re all here for the same reason … obviously, we want to see our community succeed,” he said. “Some of us, that’s why we chose this as a career path, because we share that same passion. There’s a lot of emotion that plays into this — I get that … and that’s not going to be lost on me.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he continued: Emotions are how to meaningfully engage with the community, no matter how painful. But Yamashita was also there for a reason: to explain the facts of what happened on Aug. 20 and explain the policies that dictated CPW’s response.

“It was all over social media — our office, we received a lot of phone calls related to it,” he said. “They were kind of coming from every different direction, so that’s kind of what propagated this meeting.”

Yamashita and Lee already had a working relationship on other bear-related topics, so he was familiar with her organization’s success in the Boulder area, where the Colorado Bear Coalition is based, in facilitating community meetings.

“[It’s] not a bad place to start,” Yamashita said. “Why not give it a shot — if it’s productive, great, we’ve learned something new. … We can build from there.”

In order to understand what occurred on Aug. 20, Yamashita said it’s important to understand CPW’s staffing and operational realities. Currently, eight CPW officers oversee the Roaring Fork, Eagle and Vail valleys. That day, there were five officers on duty — and when the call reporting a bear active inside a home in Aspen and that the residents were afraid for their live at about 5 a.m., the closest responding CPW officer was in Eagle. The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office had already received a 911 call, however, so it was a sheriff’s deputy that arrived first on scene. By the time CPW arrived, the bears were no longer on scene and no longer an immediate threat, Yamashita explained.

Nobody was injured in the incident, but the home was left a mess.

“There were tracks; there was scat; there was hair,” Yamashita said. “Those things indicated that those bears had been there for an extended period of time — it wasn’t something where bears went in, recognized that they’re in a bad place in an unfamiliar environment, turned around and immediately exited.”

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of behavior for which CPW policy requires a bear to be put down. The house had already been cleaned up by the time the CPW officer arrived, so the state agency’s investigation relied upon photo evidence from the PCSO and interviews with the residents in the house.

 

Matt Yamashita, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager, addresses a room full of advocates and stakeholders about the factors that went into the decision to euthanize five bears in Aspen. Photo by Megan Tackett, Aspen Daily News Editor

“Without a doubt, no questions asked, all of them were in fear that they were going to be harmed,” Yamashita said. “Embedded in our policies, embedded in our procedures, embedded in all of our trainings, is that human side of things. … Like it or not, take it or leave it, priority for us — 100% of the time — goes to people and human health and safety.”

CPW values human life more than any other, no matter how much having to put down an animal may pain the responding officers involved in an incident. If a bear enters a home, it’s considered a danger to human life, and CPW will set a trap to capture and subsequently euthanize that bear.

“We want to set a trap and target the right animals — we want to target the offending animals,” Yamashita said. “So we’re not out there just arbitrarily trying to find any bear to be the scapegoat.”

To that end, CPW intentionally sets its traps on the properties at which an incident occurs, and the Aug. 20 call was no exception. By the next day, the sow had been successfully captured. The cubs were present, though not in the trap — and they were actively trying to get back into the house, through the same window that they’d entered the night before, Yamashita said.

All four cubs were tranquilized, loaded into the trap and taken off-site.

 

There was never any question about the sow’s fate, despite differing recollections from the reporting party about whether the window had been closed but unlocked — as was told to the responding authorities — or actually had been left ajar, as was later reported in a newspaper story in The Aspen Times. The bear had been in the home, presenting a threat
to human safety, and CPW policy is very clear about its response in that circumstance. That of the cubs hadn’t been so decisive, until it was clear that they’d already learned the behavior of breaking into homes. Authorities knew that at least two of the cubs had entered the residence — but the four were indistinguishable from the other, and so all four cubs were euthanized.

“Running the risk of bears that have learned the behavior — 24 hours later are trying to replicate that same behavior and exploit the same thing — was a risk that we aren’t going to take,” Yamashita said. “We’re not going to put human health and safety, life, in jeopardy if those bears were to gain entry in another house — whether it’s the same house [or] a different house — again. So that’s where that decision was made.”

Weighing all the factors

Still, it’s a decision that clearly didn’t sit well with some of the residents in attendance.

“Why were the bears not relocated?” one woman asked.

“We won’t relocate a bear that has entered an occupied dwelling,” Yamashita answered, adding that the logistics of relocation don’t actually set the bears up for success. They have to be relocated within the state, for instance, and in reasonable habitat — which is becoming more difficult to find. “The fact that these bears went back to the same
place and were trying to gain entry a second time, there’s a high likelihood they’re going to go and find somewhere in order to gain entry and get inside of a house and try to exploit a food source.”

Roughly 40 people gather for a community meeting, hosted by the Colorado Bear Coalition at the Pitkin County Library, to address an August incident that led to Colorado Parks and Wildlife euthanizing a sow and four cubs. Photo by Megan Tackett/Aspen Daily News

And once that behavior is learned, it’s not ever unlearned, he emphasized. Yearlings are able to live on their own.

“What they’re learning that first year will imprint on them and will affect behavioral patterns for the rest of their life,” he said.

Everyone was in agreement, including Yamashita, that it wasn’t the bears’ fault. Several people in attendance spoke about their own experiences living with bears, from successfully hazing bears that were hanging around Woody Creek homes (and did not return once they were successfully deterred) to enjoying bears passing through backyards without being a nuisance.

“It really becomes a human responsibility to live and coexist safely,” another woman said, noting that she’s named the bear that routinely visits her property and has taught her children how to responsibly respond. “And I’ve done that all summer with this bear in my yard and have never felt the need to call you guys and ask for assistance because I researched it. I read into what we need to do, we train our kids on what they can and cannot do. As a resident of Aspen, it’s just, like, really frustrating that somebody left their window open and we have this tragedy occur — for them and the bears.”

Nobody who spoke up expressed a desire to be part of a process that led to CPW euthanizing a bear — and if that’s CPW’s policy, perhaps they wouldn’t call CPW.

It was an important sentiment because it led to an important clarification: CPW policy is to set a trap on the property at which a break-in occurred and subsequently euthanize the offending bear — but only with the property owner’s permission. CPW can’t set a trap on private property without the consent of the property owner, and the property owner is always made aware upfront that the captured bear will be subsequently euthanized, as was the case on the morning of Aug. 20. And not every incident requires that captured bears be euthanized, of course — and that is made clear to the property owner, as well. It depends on the incident.

At that, the tone of the room shifted to a less confrontational one. Conversation turned to education about policy in general — including that the vast majority of bear calls CPW receives do not result in euthanizations.

“This year … so far, we’ve had 402 of those conflicts reported to our office. Last year was 549 and the previous year was 439,” Yamashita said. “Of those, the number of bears that were euthanized, out of the same jurisdiction, in 2020, of those 439 calls, 22 of those resulted in the bear being put down.”

Similarly, in 2021, 16 of the 549 calls resulted in the bear being euthanized. This year, 17 bears, of 402 reported conflicts, have been euthanized. But while the percentage of bear euthanizations is low, the sheer volume of reported incidents is much higher in recent years than the decades prior.

A sign as part of the city of Aspen’s “Bear Aware” campaign in 2019 directs passersby to an informational website, aspenbears.com. Aspen Daily News file

“In the last three years, in our community alone here, we’ve had six attacks on people — confirmed ­attacks,” Yamashita said, “where people sustained injury in a couple of cases.”

In fact, even as the Colorado Bear Coalition was hosting its meeting and calls for more public responsibility were being made and heard, CPW received another call from Aspen, this time about two black bears bluff charging passersby in a neighborhood. A large pile of corn outside a home was also photographed, according to a report in The Aspen Times.

The bear population has exploded in Colorado. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, “twins was a big deal,” Yamashita said. Now, twins are the standard. “Now, we’re starting to see litters of four. There’s something there that is providing for those bears to allow them to be in such good health that they can bring on four cubs.”

But Colorado is also in a drought, and food failures are consistent. This year’s rains came too late to help the bears’ natural food sources. Which means that humans are the differentiating factor to supplement food sources — in the form of trash.

Daniela Kohl, founder of the Roaring Fork Valley Bear Coalition, spends much of her time literally knocking on doors in such neighborhoods, passing out educational information and meeting people where they are in otherwise uncomfortable conversations that often involve a lot of blame. Kohl, who was present at Thursday’s meeting, says that empowering people — with information and with free bear straps for trash cans — is a better route toward changing human behavior.

“If you don’t know, ask. If you are learning, share with others so that they can know. If you are already a ‘pro,’ volunteer your time, energy and/or resources to grassroot efforts like roaringforkbears.org,” she wrote in an email.

It was a sentiment echoed by Lee during the meeting: municipal ordinances often mirror the community’s values, so it’s important for the community to take ownership of its role.

“The community has an incredibly powerful voice in how we do things and what policies are in place,” she said. “I don’t think there can be any change in bear management without having a community voice. But yet, there’s also human safety and there’s things that we may not agree with that just kind of make sense.”

Grassroots solutions were tossed around, from rubber bullets (outside of city limits) to bear horns to electric fencing around window sills. So, too, was the idea of talking to city councilors and county commissioners, as well as homeowners associations having resources on hand for short-term renters and new residents.

“Education is good, but there also needs to be a support system to help people make it happen,” Lee said.

Megan Tackett is the editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.