ASPEN, Colo. - A half-century ago, it was considered high entertainment to feed the bears in Yellowstone National Park. People stopped their cars, rolled down their windows and fed black bears. At the landfills - which were then called "dumps" - bleachers were erected so that visitors could watch the bears as they arrived at dusk.
No bleachers have been erected at the Pitkin County Landfill but bears are common enough. The Aspen Daily News reports that as many as 15 black bears feast nightly on trash.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife says it's OK with wildlife biologists - or at least it's the lesser of problems. "We've got so many other problems we're dealing with and so many other holes we're trying to plug up that the landfill is just not something we are going to deal with right now," said Randy Hampton, an agency spokesman.
Pitkin County has not built a bear-proof fence around the landfill. But Larry Rather, who happens to be a fencing contractor, claims hypocrisy on the part of the county. A 2007 law mandates that garbage from home and businesses be kept in bear-proof containers. The ticket for a first offense is $350.
"What bothers me is that they will harass me and ticket me for 350 bucks if I have an open trash can, but the dump is the biggest open trash can here - and it's owned by the county," he said.
Wildlife and county officials argue that if the bears weren't at the landfill, they would be at Aspen Village, a nearby subdivision. At least in this case, they say, the bears have not associated their food with housing.
Aspen has been swarmed by bears this summer, and gauging by the calls to police, far more so than in 2007, another year when the natural food selection was sparse. One bear last week climbed into a cottonwood tree on a pedestrian mall in downtown Aspen and stayed more than 12 hours. And on Monday, a bear crawled onto a deck where a woman was sleeping, put a hole into her leg, then fled - but not far enough. It crawled into a tree, and wildlife officials later killed it.
Wildlife officials estimate 20 to 30 bears have been breaking into houses, eating in restaurant trash containers and destroying cars in search of food. The situation has become such that state wildlife officials want local police and sheriff's deputies to have authority to kill bears in certain situations.
As for Yellowstone, decades ago wildlife officials realized that allowing bears to eat at the landfill resulted in bears becoming accustomed to eating human food. The bleachers were removed, the landfill fenced, and eventually the traffic jams that resulted as people stopped to feed the bears ended.