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    This Land Is Their Land: Bears Are Everywhere

By MICHAEL JANOFSKY

Wednesday, September 6, 2000

BASALT, Colo., Sept. 6 It was bad enough when Steve Solomon and his wife, Bates, found the skunk crawling around under their bed at 2 a.m. That they could deal with. Sooner or later, Mr. Solomon figured, the critter would make its way out the front door, which they routinely left open for the breeze. But was the door still open? Mr. Solomon had to check.

That's when he froze. It was open, all right. But standing only 20 feet away at the compost bin was a large black bear, chomping on the remains of a cantaloupe.

"It must have been twice my size," Mr. Solomon said today, guessing the bear's weight at 400 pounds or more. "I had a skunk behind me, a bear in front of me. I didn't know which one was worse."

Mr. Solomon is hardly the only Coloradan who of late has lived out a Goldilocks tale in reverse. Because of a hot, dry summer that has withered natural food supplies, and with an ever increasing number of people living closer to forests and wilderness areas, bears have been meeting up with humans at an alarming rate throughout the state.

So far, only a smattering of human injuries have been reported, all of them minor. The encounters have been worse on the bears, more than 25 of which have been put to death this year under Colorado's two- strikes-and-you're-out policy for those that forage too close to people. Over the same period last year, the state killed only six.

Biologists and state officials say that if there are more summers like this one, and if home construction near mountainous areas continues at its feverish pace, more dangerous confrontations are inevitable.

"If a bear learns where to find human foods, he's likely to come back," said Chuck Schwartz, an expert in bears as the leader of the United States Geological Survey's Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, in Bozeman, Mont. "They have very good memory, and they don't differentiate. If it's edible, they'll eat it."

Grizzlies are not to be confused with the black bears roaming Colorado and other states. Grizzlies, larger than black bears and more threatening to humans, are generally found only in areas around two national parks in the northwest Rockies, Yellowstone and Glacier, putting them at greater distances from population centers.

Black bears, which are known to attack humans only when they feel trapped, are commonly found in dense forests and mountain terrain at high elevations, where they have encountered unsuitable conditions in Colorado this year. A late spring frost and endless summer weeks of uncommonly hot and dry weather have cost them their usual meals of acorns and berries.

Bears typically eat up to 20 hours a day in the warm months to put on enough weight to last the winter. Denied their natural foods, they have been foraging closer to homes and towns to scavenge landfills, trash cans, even dog dishes, making this year one of the most active for officials responding to calls from frightened people throughout the Rocky Mountain West. In Colorado, reports of bear sightings and encounters now occur almost daily.

"Everybody has a bear story," said Mr. Solomon, a jewelry maker who has lived for 15 years in Basalt (pronounced buh-SALT), a mountain town 20 miles northwest of Aspen. "One woman on the next street down was canning in her kitchen with the door open. A bear wandered in to help her out."

"I know another family," he said, "who eliminated every bit of food from their house, scrubbed it down and now only eats in restaurants."

In Aspen, the food is apparently so tasty that for the first time bears have been spotted poking into garbage bins along Main Street this year. Other bears have wandered along streets in Grand Junction. Tom Theobald, a beekeeper near Boulder, said bears had twice ravaged his colonies, eating the honey and destroying equipment at a cost that now exceeds $2,000.

"I don't know how they do it," he said of the bears' marauding. "They must be taking an awful lot of stings."

Most encounters this summer have ended peacefully, but some have taken their toll on the bears, especially those that officials have previously encountered, tranquilized and tagged. Any tagged bear that returns to where people live is put to death under the state program if it can be caught. In addition, property owners have a right to shoot a bear that is threatening human life.

According to the Colorado Department of Wildlife, 74 black bears were killed in those two ways through Aug. 31, and the number is climbing so rapidly that officials say this year could easily become the worst for the bears in a decade.

Towns like Aspen and Snowmass Village, near bear habitat, are taking steps to discourage the scavenging by requiring residents to upgrade garbage receptacles and bringing misdemeanor charges against those who do not comply.

Here in Basalt, Mr. Solomon has begun storing his trash elsewhere. And, for the first time since he moved in all those years ago, he is locking his front door at night.

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