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Bearing Down: How Police Respond To Ursine Visitors

Oct 23, 2019

A bear descends from a tree outside of the Starbucks on Mill St. in Aspen. Police were present and shot the bear with a non-lethal beanbag.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

In just a few weeks, black bears around the Roaring Fork Valley will settle down for a season of hibernation. But until then, they are on the hunt for food that will help them last through the winter. That hunt draws them out of the forests and hillsides and into town, where unsecured garbage serves as a tempting source of calorie-rich sustenance. 

As those bears wander into human-dominated areas, police are often called into action to make sure all parties remain unharmed, both two-legged and four.

Ginna Gordon is a community response officer with the Aspen Police Department. She has been dispatched to a call of a bear in town on more than one occasion. This year, the department has received 700 such calls through Oct. 1.

“Essentially we want to just encourage him to go out of town safely,” Gordon said. “Just away from where we have crowds.”

Aspen’s police have a policy in place to deal with the town’s frequent ursine visitors. They employ a practice called aversive conditioning, repeatedly pestering the bear with physical discomfort and loud noises until it leaves the area. That often involves shooting the bear with a non-lethal beanbag or using an air horn. By hazing a bear repeatedly, police hope it will stay out of town to avoid such discomfort in the future.

"They're getting that positive reinforcement from the trash, aversive conditioning is a tool that we can use to help try and train against that."

“It's negative reinforcement,” Gordon said. “And when they're getting that positive reinforcement from the trash, aversive conditioning is a tool that we can use to help try and train against that.”

There is no national or statewide standard for how to deal with bears in human-dominated areas. The Aspen Police Department said its policies are partially informed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (CPW)

The Humane Society of the United States is a national organization that advocates for the ethical treatment of animals. Wendy Keefover is a Colorado-based carnivore protection strategist at the Humane Society, and she gives Aspen’s tactics the Humane Society’s stamp of approval.

Aspen Police shoot non-lethal beanbags, like these, at bears as a deterrent.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

“Any kind of hazing like that where it's non-lethal,” Keefover said. “The Humane Society of the United States would certainly applaud that rather than using lethal methods to remove bears.”

Elsewhere across the state and the nation, law enforcement agencies are testing and utilizing new ways to handle bears that wander into town.

One of those tactics employs a different species of animal.

Karelian Bear Dogs have been put into use by agencies across the western United States as part of bear mitigation strategies. Originally bred in Finland nearly one hundred years ago as a hunting dog, the breed is now being trained specifically to aid law enforcement with bear hazing.

Nils Pedersen is the Wildlife K9 Director at the Wind River Bear Institute, where he trains Karelians to help with aversive conditioning. He said dogs are useful in barking and nipping at bears to make them uncomfortable, but can also help police departments connect with the communities they serve. 

“They are a great education tool,” Pedersen said. “They are ambassadors for wildlife. If you can't pet and feed a bear, well you can pet and feed a bear dog.”

Pedersen has helped train dogs for programs in Washington, Nevada, Alaska, Canada and Japan, but none in Colorado.

"If you can't pet and feed a bear, well you can pet and feed a bear dog."

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is testing out the use of canines in bear control, but their program does not include any Karelian Bear Dogs. Keefover said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employs Karelians, and she thinks Colorado would benefit from adopting its model.

In Ouray, Colorado, the CPW is testing out yet another addition to the police bear-response toolkit. There, the agency is running a study on the use of Tasers in bear mitigation. Kelly Crane is a district wildlife manager based in Ridgeway, Colorado. She said electric shocks are already used to temporarily subdue some animals, such as a deer that needs to be freed after getting its antlers stuck in a net. She saw some anecdotal evidence that electricity was being used to shield apiaries and beehives from bears, and decided a scientific trial would be a worthy way to find out if Tasers were useful, too. 

“Our feeling is not really something that you can definitively publish or say, ‘Oh yes, hey, Tasers work,’” Crane said. “So that's why we wanted to do it in more of a controlled study environment to be able to have actual scientific data on whether Tasers were effective or not.”

The study will likely yield results in three or four years. 

An Aspen Police Officer shoots a non-lethal beanbag at a bear that has made its way into town.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

While law enforcement agencies have gotten creative with their approaches to bear control, all of the experts who were interviewed for this story said the best solution is to try to keep bears out of town in the first place. 

“The reality is that if we continue to have unsecured human food sources for the bears to access,” Gordon said. “Then we're going to continue to see bear activity in our core.”

"If we continue to have unsecured human food sources for the bears to access, then we're going to continue to see bear activity in our core."

Police departments are rolling out education strategies that encourage homeowners and businesses to properly secure their trash. Keefover pointed to empirical evidence that those kinds of strategies work, citing a study in Durango, Colorado in which bears stopped returning to a neighborhood with bear-resistant trash cans.

She added that bears are intelligent enough to stop coming back to places where they know food is unavailable. 

“Bears are so smart,” Keefover said. “They are incredibly smart. They have the largest brain of any native carnivore in North America and they are highly sentient.”