Colo. bears bold in desperate search for food

(CBS News) Bear-spotting is a way of life in Aspen, Colo. With winter on the way, more bears than ever are coming into contact with people.

There is simply no way of getting used to it -- a big bear standing in a yard, carefully eyeing the humans who are just as carefully eyeing him, and then losing interest and ambling off. But if you live in Aspen, getting used to it is a must. As fall closes in, the hungry bears come in, almost 350 bear sightings were reported in September. So this time of year, being on night patrol with Aspen Police Sgt. Robert Fabrocini is more than hunting burglars and bad guys -- bears are out there, too.

On a night in Aspen, CBS News went along with Fabrocini. At one point there were five or six bears around him. Asked if that's an average night in Aspen, he replied, "Yup. And as it gets later, they'll start working their way into town and then you have to deal with people coming out of the bars, maybe have a little too much to drink, getting close the bears and that's when you get really concerned."

As winter closes in, the bears know they need food to survive and hibernate the winter, so they go to Aspen. Each night, the chase is on, bears going after apple trees sometimes in backyards, or breaking into garbage cans, especially those with discarded food outside restaurants. And sometimes, by day, they hang around, quite literally, napping up a tree and giving surprised tourists in the heart of downtown an unexpected thrill.

And the bears are definitely not dumb. County assessor Tom Isaac has a handicapped door opener that the bears figured out was an easy way into his house and refrigerator. And he's so used to bears in his yard it, he doesn't even call the police, he just gets out of the way.

Isaac, asked if the bears are bad, said, "I don't think they're bad bears, I think they're very hungry bears."

In the yard or in the kitchen is bad enough, but then there was the night a bear made it to his bedroom.

Isaac recalled, "I was lying in bed. I was alone and I was a little nervous then. When I yelled for help, he left the bedroom and went back to the refrigerator, pretty well cleaned me out."

This year, the bears are more desperate than ever. A summer of fires across the state, made worse by a drought, destroyed lot of their food supply. So hungry bears are showing up even in heavily populated Denver suburbs. And when a cub is left behind or its mother killed, they bring the cubs to Nanci Limback. She runs the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

Limback explained, "The parents, like the mom, if she doesn't have enough body fat will just say this time of year, goodbye to the cub, and off she goes and abandons the cub because she -- it's survival of the fittest -- and she has to take care of herself because she has to produce the next generation so she will just leave her kids behind."

And it is not just drought. Every year, more homes are built in forests, bulldozing away the bushes full of berries and other food the bears have always eaten to survive, especially facing a tough winter like the one coming. Limback said, "Out in the wild are there going to be bears in a lot of trouble this winter. I think there will be -- the ones that try to hibernate and don't have that 30, 40 pounds are not going to have enough body fat to make it through a long winter and will probably just die in the dens."

In a sense, the Aspen bears are the lucky ones. They find food. And most people in Aspen stay cool about it all, perhaps remembering that the houses and cars and streetlights are all late arrivals -- that, in truth, it was the bears who for centuries have thought of this area as their home.

Watch Barry Petersen's report in the video above.

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