More black bears are regularly visiting the Pitkin County landfill than in the past. Meanwhile, some nearby residents are expressing fear for the bears’ health and community safety.
Pitkin County Solid Waste Director Cathy Hall said landfill staff have been counting about 30 regular bears eating trash and compost at the landfill in the last two summers. In previous years, she said, they numbered around 15 to 20.
Hall said the bears typically come into the landfill in the evening, after workers shut down machinery and head home for the night. When staff arrive in the morning, the bears are still there. Staff beep their car horns and run the bears off before starting up for the day.
Some of the ursine regulars have nicknames, like Lima Bean, Wheelo and Simon. Hall said over the last two winters, Simon has even been hibernating in a space underneath the scalehouse, a structure in the center of the landfill.
“I would be sitting here after we close, when it's quiet, and I would hear something big underneath, bumping into the floorboards,” she said.
Hall said Simon had torn down insulation from the building and built a bed for himself. When staff explored the bed in the spring, it was surrounded with food wrappers.
“It’s actually pretty sad … you’ll see their poop around and it will have plastic bags and stuff in it,” she said.
The bears are typically more interested in trash than compost. Landfill staff mix compost daily, adding wood chips and biosolids to the organic waste.
“I think they don't like it because it's mixed, and it's not really an open bowl of food source anymore,” Hall said.
Rachael Gonzales, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northwest region, which includes Pitkin County, said bears eating at landfills is a general issue CPW is aware of.
Gonzales said a wet winter produced a strong summer crop of berries and vegetation that bears naturally feed on. Nonetheless, she said bears are opportunistic, eager to pack in as many calories as possible before hibernating for the winter.
Max Rand, a local resident at Aspen Valley Ranch, said he is concerned about the health of the landfill bears.
“I’m just concerned with what they’re ingesting — all the chemicals or whatever they’re eating up there and getting into … they’re possibly getting something stuck inside them and dying,” he said.
Looking through binoculars from where he lives, Rand said he saw at least 25 bears foraging in the trash at the landfill one night last week.
Hall said some community members in Aspen Village also have voiced concerns about the bears. The neighborhood lies within a short walking distance of the landfill.
She noted that the bears have never threatened staff at the landfill. Employees usually shoot the bears with rubber pellets when they’re young to keep them from getting comfortable with humans.
While Pitkin County commissioners and private citizens have proposed an electric fence for the landfill in the past, Hall said the idea isn’t very feasible. The fence would have to enclose about 260 acres of land, and maintaining it would be a tall task. She added that the fence could interrupt migration patterns for local elk herds.
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman said he believes in exploring ways to keep bears out of the landfill, but that it might be a losing battle.
“As the population increases and our impact on the land and the habitat increases, we’re living with bears now. … I don’t want the bears to lose in this equation,” Poschman said.
In addition to county discussions of an electric fence, CPW officials also proposed issuing limited hunting licenses for bears in the landfill. That idea also failed to gain traction.
Hall said she personally dislikes the idea of killing bears, even as a legal control method.
“I think it would be very unpopular with the public. It would be unpopular with me,” she said.
Austin Corona | Aspen Daily News | September 7, 2023