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August 28, 2009

Aspen and the Bears of Summer

by Sara Tucker

Resort areas have been inundated with bears this summer, and the death toll is mounting. Last week in Aspen it reached five: one human and four bears. So you can imagine the relief of the bear stuck in a Snowmass skate park on Tuesday when a posse arrived armed with a ladder.

It's been a trying season. In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the drama began when a young female black bear walked into the lobby of the Hotel Colorado. That was in early July. Since then, officers with the Colorado Division of Wildlife have been working as much as 20 hours a day to keep up with all the bear calls. "It's insane what is going on with bears right now," a DOW spokesman told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

DenverChannel.com has run no fewer than 18 separate stories about bear burglaries since Memorial Day, with headlines such as "Bear Breaks Into Home for Biscotti" and "Pepsi-Craving Bear Breaks Into Beaver Creek Bar." Have you heard the one about the bear that walked into the fur shop? (It happened in Aspen.) How about the midnight raider that snuck into a home on Aspen's Sneaky Lane? He was nabbed stealing candy. Sounds kinda cute, right?

Wrong. Such encounters can be deadly. Earlier this month, a Colorado woman was found dead, killed by a bear that she had tried to shoo away with a broom. It developed that she had been trying to protect a smaller bear, one that she had been feeding. A deputy sheriff killed the supposed perpetrator, only to find out he'd shot the wrong bear. The actual killer turned up a day later and was put to death.

As it turned out, the Sneaky Lane homeowner who surprised the candy thief was treated at a local hospital for minor injuries. Two nights later, the bear "returned to the scene of the crime," reported the Aspen Times, where the Division of Wildlife was waiting. End of bear.

Colorado isn't the only state with a bear problem. In San Dimas, California, a bear jumped a chain link fence and went for a dip in the swimming pool (it was a hot day). In Andover, New Jersey, a black bear was spotted strolling through the parking lot of an antiques mall.

A bumper crop of acorns in 2008 has led to a bumper crop of black bears in the Smoky Mountains, according to a Tennessee blogger, who writes that "park officials estimate the current bear population in the National Park to be approximately 1,500. That works out to approximately 2 bears per square mile in the park."

Even Anchorage, despite "a reputation for being bear tolerant," is getting fed up with its bears after last summer's series of maulings. And two weeks ago, a brown bear made it into the pages of the Kenai Peninsula Clarion after biting a hiker on the leg. The injured hiker's wife "dissuaded the bear from causing any further harm" by whacking it with her camera case. The bear fled.

To put things in perspective: Bears are particularly bothersome at this time of year, when mothers are pushing their grown cubs out into the world. Looking for a place to call home, a young bear might come across a curious sort of pond (the San Dimas pool) or an underground cave filled with edibles (this subway station in British Columbia), or a cool kind of swinging nest (your backyard hammock).

The Snowmass drama ended peacefully when the town's rec crew lowered the ladder into the bear's prison, and the bear climbed to safety. Let's hope he learned his lesson.

Reminder to tourists: Do not feed the wildlife.

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