DOW asks sheriff, Aspen police to kill dangerous bears
August 24, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen and Pitkin County law enforcement have been asked to kill aggressive or dangerous bears on behalf of the Colorado Division of Wildlife when it cannot respond in a timely manner.
The agency wants the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to shoot and kill aggressive black bears that break into locked homes and other buildings, or bears that pose a threat toward humans, DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said. The DOW has the legal authority to kill bears, and extending that to the sheriff’s office and police department is a unique, if not unprecedented, measure, he said.
But because the DOW staffs only one wildlife officer in Aspen, the agency doesn’t have the manpower needed to handle every complaint or call about dangerous or aggressive bears, Hampton said.
“This isn’t something we anticipated,” he said. “But we’re so short-staffed with one wildlife officer in the Aspen area that if he isn’t working, we have one on-call from Vail or Glenwood, and that bear may be long gone by the time the officer arrives.”
Through Friday, the DOW had killed four bears in Pitkin County this year, most recently on Wednesday, Hampton said. A bear is considered dangerous when it breaks through a locked door or poses a threat to a human. Bears that simply enter a building with unlocked doors are not necessarily aggressive or dangerous, Hampton said.
For nuisance bears, the DOW has a two-strike policy and often relocates them. That’s not the case with the rogue bruins, Hampton said.
“Under no circumstance will we relocate a dangerous bear,” he said.
Sheriff Bob Braudis and APD spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro said each department is eyeing the creation of a policy about how to kill aggressive bears.
“We’re taking this under serious advisement. [The DOW] is in a bit of a quandary,” Dasaro said. Because most bear calls come within Aspen city limits, Braudis said his deputies would probably provide mutual aid when a dangerous or aggressive bear is at large and the DOW is not available. Before any of this can take place, Braudis said his deputies need to undergo training and a policy needs to be established.
The sheriff said not all deputies are willing to shoot and kill bears.
“[Police Chief] Richard [Pryor] and I in the near future will work out a policy, and I’m sure we’re going to have some deputies that will be reluctant to kill bears for a variety of reasons,” Braudis said. “I don’t think I’m going to force anyone to do that unless there is immediate danger. It’s not something that we are salivating to add to our list of duties.”
He added: “We just want to make sure we’re targeting the aggressive bears that could eventually cause harm.”
Likewise, Hampton said, “What we don’t want are gray areas. Many of these situations are case by case. If a police officer or sheriff’s deputy feels that a bear is a threat to the public or bears are forcing their way into a physically locked home, what we’re saying is, ‘We need your help. We can’t always be there.'”
When local law authorities kill a bear, the DOW will remove the carcass, Hampton said. He also said the DOW will keep responding to bear calls.
“We’re not trying to pawn off the responsibility,” he said. “We are still going to respond. If we’re on the scene we’ll take care of it, but the reality of it is that any law enforcement [official] who feels that a bear is a danger to the public has the authority to put it down.”
Braudis said a number of deputies have their own shotguns with 12-gauge slug loads, which they use to put down road-injured big game. The Aspen Police Department has rifles but does not own any shotguns, which Braudis said would be the preferred firearm for killing a bear.
While there are instances when the DOW must shoot and kill a bear, the preferred protocol is to trap the bear and drug it, Hampton said. Neither the sheriff’s office nor the police department have that kind of resource.
The DOW’S request came when it met with the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, two days after a black bear broke through the locked French doors of a West End home, where it pushed and scratched the back and chest of resident Maureen Hirsch. She was treated and released from Aspen Valley Hospital with minor injuries.
The DOW described the incident as an “attack.” Two days later, the bear came near a trap that the DOW had placed on the property where the break-in occurred, but the bruin continued to wander. As a result, the bear was shot and killed by a DOW officer.
Braudis and Hampton said they are prepared to field complaints from people who feel the bears should be left alone to go about their business.
“To the folks that say bears were here first, we’ll help those people pack and move,” Hampton said.
Braudis noted that as is the case in most bear-riddled summers, not all residents, businesses and visitors are taking the proper precautions to keep the bears away – be it leaving doors unlocked, grills uncovered, or trash bins unsecured.
“Just about every wildlife officer I’ve worked with has a strong love for wildlife, and the last thing they want to do is kill a bear,” Braudis said. “But they are encountering a new set of circumstances based on some serious negligence on the part of residents and business owners. Our product is safety, and public safety includes an awful lot of people who come on vacation who are not aware of the dangers of leaving doors and windows open. We have to get that message out.”
But as much as that message gets out, Hampton said many people are ignoring it.
“We’ve tried public education, we’ve tried to give people the opportunity to address the problem, and we’re at the end of our rope,” he said. “We cannot control the human side of this problem. It is not effective. Some people just don’t care.”