Every spring, bears come out of their dens.
Some females will be particularly hungry (which says a lot for a bear): their cubs are born during hibernation, and although a mother nurses her cubs in the den, she will not eat or drink until she out of the paddock, usually in late April or early May. A hibernating bear, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), can go up to 200 days without eating or drinking.
Once out, adult bears begin to eat new grasses.
“The cell walls of young plants aren’t as fibrous and are easier to digest,” said Kelly Crane, CPW district wildlife manager.
Resident sea urchins in this region – the Crane district spanning Ouray, Ridgway and Telluride – will likely be in fairly good shape this spring, she said, as they found enough to eat last fall before go to their lairs.
“They had pretty decent fat layers,” said Crane, who sees the animals up close as part of his job.
What she didn’t see was also good news: when the animals don’t find enough to eat, they emerge from their dens prematurely.
“We had bears around Christmas and New Years,” Crane said. Not this year, which further confirmed that the bears weren’t going to bed hungry.
If you live in the mountains – or visit the mountains – you are in bear country. The problem for bears (and for humans) is that it is difficult for bears to limit themselves to appropriate foods while sharing the same spaces with humans. CPW reported a total of 3,701 “sightings and conflicts” with bears last year in Colorado. The number is actually down 28% from the previous year, not because the bears (or humans) did so well, but, again, likely because of the food.
“One of the most important things that determines the level of bear activity that we’re going to see with respect to human-bear conflict is whether we get the right summer monsoon humidity,” he said. Adrian Archuleta, CPW wildlife manager, who works in Durango. “It’s really essential for popping berries and acorns.” In years when food “is readily available and plentiful, we don’t tend to have as much interaction and conflict.”
At this time of year, humans can attract bears without even trying: a property with fruit trees and berries is an automatic attractant, for example, as are stinky garbage cans, food and water bowls for dogs and delicious birdseed (especially hummingbird nectar, which appeals to a bear’s sweet tooth). And that’s before you leave the house and hit the trail (a bear’s ability to smell is so strong it can pick up your scent from a mile away).
“This is the time of year when bird feeders need to go. Start cleaning your grill more regularly,” Crane said. “Pull your trash can inside or lock it. Never leave food wrappers lying around. Keep the windows of your house – or your car – open and locked.
(A video on CPW’s website shows a bear deftly opening a truck door with its paw, climbing into the vehicle, and exiting with its prize: a backpack containing food.)
“Over 80 percent of a bear’s diet” is vegetation, but bears find human food irresistible if it’s available, Crane noted. If you notice a bear lurking around your property, “Call us. There are things we can do to help deter bad behavior” before a bear does something more drastic, like entering through a window or door (there is a video of a bear on the CPW website lying on his back on a lounge sofa).
“We can send people to visit the sites and try to identify the attractants,” Archuleta said. “We’re here to help, and that’s where it all starts. Too often we don’t get a call until someone has reached the limits of their tolerance for a bear. People call us when he crosses a line: ‘Hey, he broke into my vehicle. You have to come take care of it. We really wish you had called when you first noticed the bear.
If the problem persists, “it may lead us to have to euthanize the bear. This is the worst thing that has happened; the last resort. No one is looking forward to it.
CPW offers Life with Bears brochures and a home checklist to help deter visitation. For more information, visit cpw.state.co.us/bears.