More bear hunting licenses will be issued for the upper Roaring Fork Valley in September to try to reduce the population and ease conflicts with humans if a proposal by the Colorado Division of Wildlife staff is adopted.
The wildlife division staff recommended that roughly 1,200 bear tags - nearly twice as many as issued in recent years - be awarded this year, according to Perry Will, area wildlife manager. Last year 630 licenses were available.
The Colorado Wildlife Commission will consider the proposal at the end of March.
"We're really looking at this from a management perspective," said wildlife division spokesman Randy Hampton.
The number of hunting licenses issued will move up and down as the agency explores ways to minimize bear-human conflicts, which have been rampant in recent summers. Hampton said some people are opposed to hunting, but it is a legitimate wildlife management tool.
The Aspen area's bear population is "healthy" although assessing numbers is difficult, Hampton said. Wildlife officers want to maintain a healthy population and believe that can be accomplished while allowing more hunting.
"It is hoped it will minimize the conflicts," Hampton said.
He stressed that issuing 1,200 licenses doesn't equate to 1,200 dead bears. There were only 33 bears "harvested" last year by hunters in the sprawling game management unit that includes Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Vail, Hampton said. That was a success rate of 5.2 percent among the 630 available licenses.
If the wildlife commission approves issuing extra licenses, they will be added for the Aspen area, not for the entire game management unit, Will said. If the same success rate holds, that would mean about 62 bears will be killed by sportsmen.
Bear licenses are issued for September and later in the fall. Most hunters want them earlier, before bruins hibernate. A spring bear hunt was banned by Colorado voters in the mid-1990s.
Wildlife officers and law enforcement officers were forced to kill 20 bears in the Aspen area last year after various conflicts. That was a record. Wildlife officials would prefer that sportsmen hunt the bears.
Will warned that increased hunting might not be a quick fix to the conflicts in the Aspen area. It might take a decade before increased hunting has an effect, if ever, he said.
"We have more bears than we ever had," Will said.
The wildlife division will continue to try to educate homeowners in Pitkin County to prevent access for bears to food sources: cleaning outdoor grills, not using bird feeders, not leaving pet food outside, locking doors and windows whenever possible, securing garbage and such.
Kevin Wright, wildlife officer for the Aspen area, said efforts to educate homeowners has been only partially successful.
"I've been at some of these houses every year for the last 10 years," he said. "There was so much trash available in this town last year."
Aspen officials hope to change that this year. The City Council approved a rule earlier this month that requires all property owners in Aspen to have a wildlife-resistant garbage can. Trash containers can only be left outside between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on pick-up day. The fine for a first violation is $250; and $500 for a second offense. The rules take effect June 1.
Wildlife officials hailed Aspen's steps.