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A Difficult situation for bears, campers

A flurry of black bear sightings since early June at an Aspen-area campground, punctuated by a bruin ransacking a tent Monday, prompted the U.S. Forest Service to impose temporary restrictions on campers Tuesday.

For an indefinite period of time, and likely through Aug. 24 – when the USA Pro Cycling Challenge rolls into town – Difficult Campground users are prohibited from using tents and soft-sided trailers or campers.

The 47-spot campground is located off of Highway 82, six miles east of Aspen, and just off the route of the bike race. The campground is sold out for next Wednesday’s leg of the race, which starts in Gunnison and finishes by taking riders up and over Independence Pass, via Highway 82, into downtown Aspen.



Officials made the call after a bear plowed through a tent sometime between 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Monday. The tent was unoccupied and its owners were in Aspen at the time, officials said. A nearby camper heard the tent being riffled through and alerted the campsite host.

And about a week ago, a black bear visited a Difficult Campground tent in which one person was sleeping, and woken up, by the bruin, said Perry Will, area wildlife manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The inhabitant’s “squawking” spooked away the bear, Will said.



Reports of black bear sightings at Difficult, which has an abundant supply of serviceberries – bears love to feast on them – date back to early June, said Phil Nyland, district wildlife biologist for the White River National Forest. He called the “escalating series of incidents” with bears the catalyst for the ban.

“There have been plenty of signs of bears up there,” he said, “and we still have a low level of compliance [by campers]. That was one factor [for the ban]. The other is the level of use next week with the pro bike race we’re expecting to see. That could beget other bear incidents.”

Nyland and Will said the campsite host reported there were no signs of food that the campers left in the destroyed tent. Nyland, however, said “it’s difficult to say that bear didn’t associate that tent with food.”

Even so, Will noted that near the tent were two trash bags, left outside, containing Hershey’s candy-bar wrappers and other enticing items for bears. The bear also had its way with the trash bags, Will said.

“When they show aggression like that it’s probably best to take precaution,” he said.

No one saw the bear, but at least three have been spotted at the campground over the last three months, Will said. It’s likely this bear, which is not believed to have a history as a problem bear, was a member of the trio.

Nyland and Will said campers aren’t helping the situation. As has been the case in past summers, some campers are not stowing their food away when they’re not using it. There are food containers on site at Difficult Campground, or the food can be stored in the campers’ cars.

“What has me concerned is the lack of compliance we’re getting at Difficult Campground,” Nyland said.

District Ranger Scott Snelson, in a prepared statement, said: “Bears and people do not mix well, especially when bears get used to people and their food. To protect both people and bears, we are closing this campground to tents and soft-sided trailers until further notice.”

Black bear attacks on people are rare, but they do happen. In July, a 13-year-old boy was attacked in his tent by a black bear in a private campground near Twin Lakes. The 200-pound male bear, who bit the boy’s leg, was later tracked down by DOW officials and killed.

“We don’t want to see somebody hurt like we saw on the other side of the hill,” said Will, in reference to the Twin Lakes attack.

The Forest Service said other Highway 82 campgrounds east of Aspen such as Weller, Lincoln and Lostman are still open to tents and soft-sided shells. But for now, Difficult is off limits to such camping.

“You can sleep in your Yugo if you want to [at Difficult],” Nyland said, “just nothing soft.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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