No spring break for animals gone wild in the high country

State wildlife officials say it’s been a particularly busy spring for encounters between humans and wildlife in the high country, especially in and around the high-altitude resort towns of Vail and Aspen.

“We were seeing more conflict in the spring, and we typically don’t,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “Bears come out of hibernation and they ramp up pretty slow, but this year has been a little different than what we’ve seen over the last 10 years.”

Warmer spring seasons in the mountains over the past decade, perhaps the result of global climate change, have meant shorter ski seasons but plenty of lush vegetation by the time most bears emerge from hibernation. Record snowfall in most Colorado mountain areas last winter and a much cooler spring reversed that trend.

“The winter stayed around for so bloody long that the berry bushes and the wildflowers didn’t bloom out and were maybe three or four weeks behind, and so the bears aren’t finding natural food,” Hampton said. “Because of that, they were coming down into town.”

Though he doesn’t yet have any statistical data from the state’s northwest region to back that up, anecdotally Hampton said local wildlife officers have been a lot busier this past spring, responding to numerous bear-human encounters in both the Vail and Aspen areas, including home break-ins by bears and more incidents of bears being struck by vehicles on local roads.

The good news is that with recent warmer weather and spring finally giving way to summer in the high country, the mountains are starting to green up and the bears will begin heading up into more remote areas. But Hampton said it’s still a good idea to remain vigilant in bear country with what has become a routine reminder by wildlife officers that people keep trash, barbecue grills and pet food inside closed garages and locking doors and windows.

“In the summertime, bears are always going to be around, especially in Vail and Aspen and places like that that are built-in prime bear habitat,” Hampton said. “Anytime from when it warms up to when it cools off again.”

As for mountain lions, Hampton said in the summer they generally have plenty of food, such as deer and elk, in more remote places where humans are far less likely to encounter the big cats.

“Winter’s actually probably more dangerous in those areas for mountain lions because of the fact the deer and elk come down low [because of deep snow up high and better grazing at lower elevations] and the mountain lions follow,” Hampton said.

“We had lions operating in the Aspen area on some of the hiking and biking trails over the winter. People came across dead elk lying there all covered in sticks because [lions] cache them and bury them and come back later, so that can be a little unnerving to come across a dead half-eaten thing, which if you know anything about lions you know it’s coming back and you’re standing there guarding its food.”

Hampton’s advice for anyone who is attacked by any wild animal in Colorado is to fight back, first trying to look bigger by standing tall and waving a jacket and yelling, and then physically fighting back as hard as possible if bravado doesn’t scare the animal off. Never play dead, he said.

The only exception to the fighting-back rule is a moose, Hampton said. In the case of a moose approaching and acting aggressively, he said the best approach is to run and get something big between you and the moose, which depending on the situation might be a tree, a big rock, a car or a golf cart.

And the worst thing you can ever do is feed a wild animal, no matter how big it is. That will only get the animal accustomed to humans andraise expectations of handouts, which can only end badly, he said.

“Once people are stupid, we wind up coming out and dealing with it as the wildlife agency and we wind up getting the black eye,” Hampton said. “We’re the bad guy because we went out and killed it, but ultimately it was going to bite somebody.”

He cites the case of coyote that began hanging out under a chairlift last winter at Copper Mountain ski area. People from the lift kept tossing it food until it finally tried to bite a skier. Wildlife officers then came out and killed the coyote, something they’re compelled to do in the case of any wild animal that shows aggression toward humans.




is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.