The Nation's Pulse

The Foie Gras Bears

Black bears are emerging from hibernation now, hungry to taste the rich food on offer in Aspen and other Colorado resorts.

By 4.23.10

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Black bears are emerging from hibernation now, and Aspen has a bear problem, one that it shares with other upscale Colorado mountain towns (Vail, Telluride, Durango, etc.). Bear populations are growing in these areas, even as resort and real estate development shrinks their habitat. Aspen police and wildlife officials fielded 460 bear-related calls in 2009. Two people were attacked inside posh homes in separate incidents last summer. Around the same time a 74-year-old woman named Donna Munson was killed by a bear on her rural property near Ouray. Despite warnings from authorities, she had persisted in feeding bears in her backyard. "She was dead set on continuing to feed the bears, and unfortunately, she paid the ultimate price," Ouray County Sheriff's Investigator Joel Burk told the Los Angeles Times. Nearby Durango, Colorado reported 627 local bear sightings in 2009.

These ski towns have a trash problem in that their prosperity produces a lot of it. Dumpsters behind opulent homes, restaurants, or a McDonald's are ursine food magnets. In the last year in the Aspen area 42 bears have died, not counting the normal harvest of the hunting season. Of that number, twenty have been shot by cops or otherwise euthanized by Colorado Division of Wildlife personnel. The other 22 were hit by motor vehicles. Summertime Aspen is "bear season." New municipal ordinances demanding secure -- "bear-proof" -- dumpsters are increasingly seen in resort towns. Pitkin County (Aspen) has increased fines for "unsecured" dumpsters and trashcans. Aspen has a municipal program called "Bear Aware." Durango's is called "Bear Smart."

Eastern states have also seen a population explosion of bruins in the last few years, even requiring a controversial hunting season in New Jersey, for instance. The bears seem to be thriving nationwide thanks to changes in their habitats and diet. And like coyotes and deer (and in the West, mountain lions), they are strangely at home in suburban America. When a bear ransacks a dumpster in the middle of the night in your neighborhood cul-de-sac, it is simply adapting to its environment, as bears have done in North America for the past four million years.

The black bear (Ursus americanus) is found from Alaska to Mexico, including all wooded areas of the United States from the Appalachians to the Midwest and beyond to the Rockies and Pacific Coast Ranges. They're so numerous that there are twice as many black bears in North America as there are all other bear species (grizzlies, brown bears, polar bears, etc.) found worldwide. They are omnivorous, that is, they'll eat anything: berries, acorns, decomposing carrion upon emerging from hibernation, honey from beehives, fish, potato salad and candy bars swiped off your picnic table, or the remnants of a fast food feast in a dumpster. Their numbers point to the fact that they increasingly don't die in hibernation, an evolutionary population check common when they entered that period underweight from a lack of natural food. The females -- or sows -- not only enjoy the higher survival rates, but breed more often and produce more cubs. Bears historically raided dumps when there was a dearth of natural plant food due to drought. Now it seems that their evolutionary appetite is pointing to huge amounts of available human food. Why bother with roots and berries when you can visit the dumpster behind a chic new restaurant in Aspen at 3 a.m.?

Bear hunters in Colorado only fill 5% of tags issued; 95% fail to kill a bear. Black bears are mostly nocturnal, and legal hunting occurs during daylight hours, so it actually requires hunting skill to kill a bear in the wild (that's the point). The Colorado Division of Wildlife hopes to increase annual hunter success this fall from an average of 33 to 55 bears in a large section of territory on the White River National Forest from Aspen to Vail and Vail Pass, so it's almost doubling the number of permits available this year from "630 to about 1,050 starting this fall," spokesman Randy Hampton told New West. And they are doing this in other sections across much of western Colorado.

It will be relatively quiet until August. At that time the bears will heed their instinctual call (hyperphagia) to start packing in 20,000 calories a day to prepare for the rigors of hibernation, which is actually more than a pleasant six-month snooze. Pregnant sows will give birth to -- and nurse -- an average of two cubs in the winter den, and literally need a good layer of fat to propagate the species. As the first frosty nights nip the mountains, and the glitterati and tourists put away their golf clubs and dream of snowy ski slopes, the hungry foie gras bears will lumber into Aspen, once again arrogantly neglecting to phone in their reservations. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.