City of Aspen staff say that enforcing wildlife-related laws and coordinating bear safety is a big job, and that it might be worthwhile to hire a full-time position dedicated to that task.
The Aspen City Council may take up the matter this fall. While the Aspen Police Department handles public safety calls related to wildlife — and always will — it will need assistance in the coming years in handling the burden of other wildlife-related responsibilities. As local officials have stressed for many years, there’s much more to wildlife safety than getting bears out of your home or trash cans. It’s also about making sure they don’t get in there in the first place.
As part of its responsibilities, APD enforces trash ordinances, educates community members about bear safety and constantly coordinates with business owners, trash haulers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife in order to make sure that bear-attracting waste is responsibly disposed. This year, the police department tackled those responsibilities by hiring a part-time wildlife enforcement officer, funded though a state grant for “bear-human conflict reduction.”
But the grant funding only lasts through the end of 2023, and the city is looking to create a more permanent arrangement starting next year.
City Parks and Open Space Director Matt Kuhn — whose department assists in proactive wildlife management — called the coordination of an internal and external bear program and wildlife program within the city “a huge lift.” Kuhn said rising moose populations, the possible arrival of wolves and the growth of composting in Aspen could add new pressures on APD’s proactive wildlife safety efforts.
Moose, which are not native to Colorado, were introduced by the state in 1978. Since then, the state has continued introducing more of the animals in areas closer to the Roaring Fork Valley. By 2010, Pitkin County saw its first known moose calves, and a growing population now lives in the Aspen area.
“We have had moose calls this year,” said Ginna Gordon, APD community response officer supervisor. “And our moose populations do really well in this area. So it's safe for us to anticipate that we're going to continue to have more moose interactions as their population continues to grow.”
As for wolves, Kuhn said there are a lot of “unknowns” surrounding wolf reintroduction in Colorado. The state’s voters approved a ballot measure in 2020 to reintroduce wolves, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife expects to introduce the animals on the Western Slope by the end of this year. Wolves are known to travel widely in search of prey, and state officials have said the Roaring Fork Valley has suitable habitat for them.
In addition, the growth of composting in Aspen also will create new attractants for bears in Aspen. The city council adopted an ordinance in February that will require Aspenites to keep their organic waste out of landfills, in some cases by disposing of it in composting containers.
“It’s just another layer of complexity for restaurants and businesses to manage, as well as residents,” Kuhn said.
Even without these growing issues, Gordon said proactive wildlife work is especially tough in Aspen because the city is a “revolving door” of new visitors.
“It's a rinse and repeat cycle, there's people coming and going, whether it's visitors or seasonal employees, people driving up to Independence Pass. And so the education and prevention portion of this process has been ongoing. It's not something that we can just do one time and walk away from. We have to always be working on it and attentive to it,” Gordon said.
She said that having a designated officer for these responsibilities has been highly effective.
“I see the efficacy of having a dedicated role like this in our community. And from what we've seen thus far this year, it's been hugely helpful. And compliance is really some of the best that I've seen in my career here,” Gordon said.
She added that over two-thirds of the contacts the wildlife officer has made have been preventive in nature. That means the officer is helping Aspenites secure their trash and homes before a bear incident happens.
Having a new, dedicated position will allow the APD’s community resource officers — who currently respond to accidents, citizen arrests and code violations — to begin focusing on additional duties, such as theft and fraud cases.
“Our community really values our wildlife and our natural resources. So it's a really exciting opportunity to be able to bring in a position that can be just really focused on those specific matters,” Gordon said.
Going forward, the new full-time employee may not be a position within the police department. One option for handling wildlife responsibilities, included in a work plan presented to council last Tuesday, is for the Parks and Open Space Department to hire the wildlife-enforcement official, moving most wildlife responsibilities (except for emergency response) away from APD.
“The Parks and Open Space would still continue to work closely with the police department and all those calls related to public safety, and managing when bears come into our community will continue to be something that the police department leads, but the coordination aspect is where the shift is proposed to happen,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn said the parks department has worked with the police department on wildlife management for many years now. Already, parks department rangers participate in trash compliance patrols in downtown Aspen around three days per week.
He said city staff began discussing the idea of moving proactive wildlife management over to the parks department about a year ago.
“We are coming to the realization that this is really a year-round program and that we need to provide the staff resources available to support that communication, the oversight on compliance, and also just really ensuring that our codes and policies meet best interests of the city and the wildlife in our community as well,” Kuhn said.
The work plan stated the parks department would request funding for the new wildlife management position in its 2024 budget proposal. Kuhn said the idea will still have to undergo internal review with city staff before that happens. If it passes review, council will approve or reject the idea during budget deliberations in October.
In the meantime, Gordon said Aspenites should be extra aware of bears in the next couple of months. Bears are currently entering “hyperphagia,” the time of year when they eat as much as possible before they hibernate. That means they are more likely to seek out food in human environments.
“It's a really important message that we can get out to the community that we're not out of the woods yet. And we need everyone working together doing their part, securing their solid waste or any attractants that they have on their property,” Gordon said.
Overall, said Aspen Police Chief Kim Ferber, the most important objective is making sure that both the animals and people are safe and happy.
"Our approach is driven by a genuine concern for both our citizens and the wildlife that calls Aspen home. We strive to balance the demands of public safety with the need to respect and protect the wildlife that are an integral part of our environment," Ferber said.
Austin Corono | Aspen Daily News I August 7, 2023