A family recently visiting Aspen was hiking down the trail between Crater and Maroon lakes when they spotted a bear and eventually got nervous that it might harass them for food. They tossed it a granola bar and headed for safety.
In a separate incident that was reported Monday, campers at Crater Lake seemed to follow protocol by putting their food and garbage in a sack and stringing it up in a tree for the night. They awakened Monday morning to find that a bear used its claws to sever the string and score the food. They packed up and departed without incident, according to a report to the U.S. Forest Service.
The two cases are among a growing number of bear sightings and interactions with humans that get reported just about every day of the late spring and summer to the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, according to Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist with the White River National Forest. Forest rangers expect to get a daily report of a bear incident — ranging from something minor to conflicts with humans — from mid-May to mid-August, he said.
The number of incidents involving bruins varies each year because of the condition of natural food supplies, but in general, incidents have been on the rise since 2009.
“They certainly are. I can’t explain why,” Nyland said.
There were three reported incidents at official campgrounds and less formal but congregated campsites in 2010. That increased to seven incidents each in 2011 and 2012, then soared to 13 last year.
The White River National Forest and the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District in particular have responded with plans to reduce conflicts and procedures on how to avoid incidents and how to handle the ones that occur.
The Forest Supervisor’s office approved a five-year, seasonal food storage order last month. It requires all campers at campgrounds and popular dispersed camping areas — such as Lincoln Creek and the end of Castle Creek Road — to properly store their food or face a fine. The order will be in effect from late spring through early fall in every district on the forest except Dillon.
Campers must use food storage lockers or place foods, garbage and other attractants in a locked vehicle.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District also approved a bear management plan that outlines steps the agency can take for preparedness, prevention, education and incident response. It goes well beyond the food-storage order and looks at bear issues in a broader context.
Rather than reacting to incidents, the ranger district has mapped proactive steps and how to respond to incidents, said Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor.
“It’s the cornerstone of how we do things now,” she said of the bear management plan.
Some of the practices are internal only, but others will affect the public. Campers at Difficult Campground east of Aspen, for example, will now check in with the campground hosts rather than self-serve pay. That gives the hosts an opportunity to emphasize that they are in bear country and must comply with food and garbage rules.
The management plan also stresses that the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District must continue to invest in adding food-storage lockers and providing bear-proof garbage containers at campgrounds and day-use sites.
“We’re probably 20 to 30 percent there,” Nyland said. The food lockers cost $800 piece. Moran said 8 percent of campers’ fees goes to purchases of food lockers. The lockers were added this spring at campgrounds in the Maroon Creek Valley. Other major campgrounds, such as Bogan Flats near Marble and Lost Man on Independence Pass have none yet.
The district is also going to beef up its education efforts, from direct contact by rangers to placement of signs stressing that people are now in bear country and what that means.
“We understand that we’re a destination forest. We have people coming from all over the world,” Nyland said. The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District has a responsibility to alert them about bears and provide them with information to keep them safe, he said. One goal is to prevent activities that will habituate bears to associating humans with food sources.
“If they throw a granola bar to a bear, it can trigger actions long after they’re gone,” Nyland said.