Bears in Aspen: How To Avoid Ursine-Related Disaster in Town

You might not see a showdown like this, but bears in Aspen aren't uncommon.
You might not see a showdown like this, but bears in Aspen aren't uncommon. Magnus Johansson
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Most seasoned outdoorsmen and women are aware of proper bear-proofing procedures in the wild. But what to do when these furry creatures cross your path in an urban environment?

It's not uncommon for Aspen locals to share anecdotes over happy hour about their bear run-ins, whether they're breaking into cars or homes or simply scampering through the yard. During the summer and fall in downtown Aspen, tourists are often surprised to see the "Bear Aware" signs in the pedestrian malls on Hyman and Cooper, because the creatures like to hang out and sleep in the trees in this busy part of town. And Aspen even has its own Bear Hotline: 970-429-1768.

As novel as it may seem to an Aspen newcomer, there's a serious side to all this ursine activity: Not only are bear break-ins messy and costly, they're dangerous for everyone involved, as bears that have become too accustomed to humans have to be put down.

Drought can drive bears to search for food in downtown Aspen or at campsites.
Drought can drive bears to search for food in downtown Aspen or at campsites. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies

Depending on snowfall and rainfall, the Aspen can be abuzz with black bear activity in the fall. According to the  Aspen Center for Environmental Science , bears feed for up to 20 hours per day, hoping to consume at least 20,000 calories before heading into a hibernation that may last seven months. If there’s been a lot of precipitation throughout the previous winter, spring, and summer seasons, bears will stick to the forests and higher elevations, where their natural food sources are plentiful. However, if there’s been a drought, hungry bears preparing for hibernation will find food elsewhere, including Dumpsters and other spots in downtown Aspen.

With that in mind, here are some insider tips and strategies for keeping yourself safe and protecting bears in Aspen during the fall. Whether you're a longtime local or a first-time visitor, you'll likely learn something new.

1. Be extra careful with your trash.

Black bears are not typically aggressive; in fact, in the wild they can be quite shy. However, bears that have had success finding food in residential areas and campgrounds are typically desensitized to humans. In other words, they’re less inclined to fear us and can be more inclined to injure a person who gets in their way of food. Unfortunately, in Aspen and many other mountain towns, every year bears who have become too comfortable with humans have to be put down by the Department of Wildlife.

If you’re staying in a vacation rental home or condo or over at friend or family member’s residence, note that the city requires the use of wildlife-resistant garbage and recycling receptacles, which may be left outside on day of pick-up only between 6 am and 7 pm. Alternatively, wildlife-proof receptacles can be left outside overnight.

2. An unlocked door can spell disaster.

Don't forget to lock the door to keep out bears.
Don't forget to lock the door to keep out bears. Håkan Dahlström

During the late summer and fall in Aspen, it’s imperative to close and lock residential doors to prevent bears from getting inside and raiding the fridge and pantry. Don't forget to lock the windows and doors to the home or condo you're staying in, and keep garage doors shut. Bears are quite tactical and very intelligent and can figure out how to open most doors or windows. But if doors are locked, bears are more likely to give up on attempting to enter.

If you walk in on a bear break in or experience an attempt while inside, yell, blow a whistle, clap your hands, or make other loud noises. Do not approach or corner a bear. If the bear remains, call the Aspen Police Department for assistance.

3. Don't forget about food, either.

Don't forget about the barbeque pit.
Don't forget about the barbeque pit. tanjila ahmed

Just as it's important to secure garbage in bear-resistant or -proof receptacles, it's important to keep anything that smells like food out of the yard or outdoor areas around the home or condo. This means keeping barbecues clean and not leaving pet food outside.

Additionally, yards or parks with fruit trees will attract bears. If you notice a lot of ripened fruit on the ground, you can expect a bear visit at some point. Minimize the chances of a surprise encounter by picking up fallen fruit.

The same rule applies to your car. Don't leave food in it, and especially, don't leave it unlocked with food in it. Bears can easily open car doors and will wreck havoc on the interior.

4. Don't underestimate bears in downtown Aspen.

Aspen police are very good about properly and safely moving bears along or keeping picture-taking tourists at a safe distance. But the cops can't be on 24-hour bear watch, so it's important that you know what to do if you have a bear encounter. Here are some hard and fast rules to follow:

  • Stay calm and don't run

  • Back away slowly

  • Avoid eye contact

  • Never feed a bear

  • Leave cubs alone and do not get in between cubs and the mother

  • Keep pets on leash

  • Do not gather around

  • Fight back if attacked

5. Stay safe in wilderness areas, too.

Black bear activity is commonplace in Aspen during the fall.
Black bear activity is commonplace in Aspen during the fall. Wongaboo

Aspen is gorgeous in the fall, and a prime time to visit this exceptional corner of the Elk Mountains. Thus, a trip to Aspen in its autumn glory without spending some time in the bright gold aspen groves would be a missed opportunity. Safely venture into Bear Country with these tips:

  • Carry a bear canister at all times

  • Be alert: Don't wear headphones when hiking in bear country.

  • Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk. A firm clap or quick shout warns bears that humans are in the area.

  • Keep dogs leashed; explor­ing canines can surprise a bear. Your dog could be injured, or come run­ning back to you with an irritated bear on its heels.

  • Keep chil­dren between adults. Don’t let them run ahead or fall behind.

  • Double bag food, and never leave any trash or leftovers behind. Finding treats teaches bears to associate trails with food.

  • If you’re lucky enough to see a bear, watch from a safe distance and enjoy this very special experience. If your presence causes the bear to look up or change its behavior in any way, you’re too close.

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