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Crestone cubs grow amid debate over whether mother bear's killing was justifiable (PHOTOS)

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On August 25, a mother bear with two cubs was shot on a ranch in Crestone by a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer.

The cubs were rescued and are growing at a facility near Silt even as Crestone residents continue to wonder if the bear's killing qualifies as justifiable homicide or a case of mistaken identity.

Animal Law Center attorney Jennifer Edwards, who's in touch with the Crestoners, tells the story far differently than does Randy Hampton, spokesman for the CPW. First, her version.

"A mother bear was killed on the property of Elaine Johnson, who'd been watching the bear and her two cubs the entire summer," she says. "The bears had become a kind of precious thing in Crestone. Everyone knew who they were, and everyone loved watching the mother nurse her babies. But then a Wildlife officer came onto her property and shot the mother bear."

Why? "The department claimed the bear had killed a goat, but Elaine and the rest of the community knows it didn't."

Wildlife officials took the bear's cubs, described by Edwards as "a male and a female who was small for her age. Elaine knew she didn't have a high chance of survival if they weren't put into a good facility. So she got in touch with us, and I put in some calls, and reached Nanci Limbach at the Pauline Schneegas Wildlife Foundation outside Silt, and had them moved there.

"When they got there, they initially had some parasites. But they've now been treated and they're clear of that -- and they're putting on a lot of weight. The female is still smaller than the male and extraordinarily timid, almost meek. She's not as aggressive to get her food; the male pushes her out of the way. But they both still need more weight." Once they do, they'll be placed in a dugout-style den while in hibernation state, with the idea that when they awaken this next February or so, they'll be able to immediately reenter the wild.

In the meantime, Edwards says her office is exploring legal options in regard to the killing of the mother bear: "People in Crestone are not happy with what happened down there, and they want to pursue some sort of action, if possible." Meanwhile, Edwards shares speculation that the Wildlife department is too trigger happy when it comes to bear-related issues. "When I called around looking for places for these cubs, everyone was full, and the department facility alone had 23 bear cubs, which is just astounding," she maintains. "There shouldn't be this many orphaned cubs."

CPW's Hampton agrees with this sentiment, but not much else mentioned by Edwards. The shooting was about much more than just killing a goat, he says. Likewise, he argues that dark implications about an open season on mother bears simply aren't supported by the facts. "We received a 911 call from a very frightened individual who said a bear had killed his goat, and that he'd had a physical altercation with the bear," Hampton allows. "He said it was trying to get in the house, and he feared for the safety of a woman and a child in the home with him. We responded, based on the information the caller had provided -- and a couple of times in the call, they said it was a mother with two cubs.

"Our officer knew the bear they were talking about in that call and proceeded to put that bear down."

Hampton adds that the cubs were moved to the Pauline Schneegas Wildlife Foundation at the request of Crestone residents. He makes no mention of the Animal Law Center.

More details are scarce in part because "we have an internal review of the incident going on," Hampton continues. "That's standard practice when we receive complaints regarding actions by our employee," as happened in this case via Johnson and other Crestone residents. "The existence of a review doesn't mean the employee did anything wrong. It just means we got a complaint. However, I can say that based on the information we had and the description given by the caller" -- who called 911 a second time to say that the officer hadn't arrived yet and to ask if he could shoot the bear -- "we responded in appropriate fashion."

In response to the griping, "we've met several times with people in the Crestone community, and we've had a couple of community meetings down there attempting to address some of their concerns," Hampton reveals. "But the reality is, there were multiple bears in town, and there are bear problems there, because there are trash problems. There are several dumpsters they've been eating out of.

"We don't want to put any bears down. But this incident was one that was brought on because the bears were too comfortable in the community."

Regarding the high number of motherless cubs, Hampton attributes it in part to "a significant drought this summer within southeast Colorado. In a drought situation, a mother may abandon her cubs. And there have been times when bears have died in roadkill incidents, and we'll get calls from people about cubs -- so we'll take them in and work to return them to the wild.

"I believe the Crestone bear was the only one specifically put down in a nuisance/dangerous bear situation where we ended up with cubs at a rehab facility. We got one other cub where we had euthanized a female bear, but she had been injured in an incident involving a land owner, and her injuries were so significant that we had to put her down."

While the shooting in Crestone represents "a difficult situation," Hampton stresses that "we manage black bears in Colorado because we want a thriving and healthy population. But in individual instances where bears become dangerous and aggressive toward people, we have an obligation to protect the public's safety."

Anyone interested in donating to the care of the cubs can get information about donating by visiting the Pauline Schneegas Wildlife Foundation.

Page down to see more photos of the cubs. Click here to follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.

More from our News archive: "Hand-feeding Burger King food to bears? When it comes to stupidity, that's a Whopper!"

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