bear

Cute but not cuddly: Ursus Americanus (American Black Bear) in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy of Jim Martin)

Colorado celebrated Craft Beer Day earlier this week, but for mountain town residents, an even more important yearly event is on the horizon.

Call it bear day, or rather, bear season. The annual springtime rite of passage for ursines (and hapless humans, who have failed to plan for the creatures’ rearrival) is about to begin. Now is the time to plan for the bears’ return, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) terrestrial biologist Alyssa Kircher: A little foresight protects both the animals themselves — which may eventually need to be euthanized if they become too habituated to humans — as well as human homes and property.

“This time of year, when bears start emerging,” Kircher said, “it’s very important to start good habits.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has an entire webpage devoted to best practices when it comes to bears. The key thing to keep in mind is that bears are omnivorous, and smelly human food is a powerful attractant.

Perhaps surprisingly, “They’re not as much of a predator as people think they are,” Kircher said. “They’ll scavenge carcasses, and occasionally predate easy pickings, such as elk and deer calves. But 90 percent of their diet is plant-based. They like greens a lot more than we think. They’re much more apt to destroy a raspberry bush than a deer” or, for that matter, you.

“Most wildlife is looking to avoid people,” Kircher pointed out. “We’re not meant to be in their small habitat.”

And yet we find ourselves here — we place our communities in landscapes that for millions of years, black bears and other wildlife had to themselves.

Then the enticing scents of food draws them in. “There’s a ton of calories in human food,” Kircher said. “In Telluride, trash cans have been more of a problem than birdfeeders” when it comes to luring bears, Kircher said. “They have super strong noses and really good memories. If you can get a bear-proof trash container, do that. Store trash inside the garage, if you can, and bring it out only on pickup day. Keep the yard clean of debris” (even a stray candy wrapper can be an attractant). “Lock the windows and doors on your home, and keep your car door locked. I know some people feed their dogs outside. You don’t want to leave those dishes out.”

You also don’t want to leave bird feeders dangling temptingly.

“Keep feeders at least 10 feet away from your house, and bring them in every night,” Kircher advised (she also advises people to take down feeders from mid-April to mid-November).

Bears begin to emerge from their dens “right about now,” CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski said. “Usually the males come out first, and start poking around. Sows emerge a little while later, once it’s warmer; their cubs are still pretty tiny. We do have bears getting in trouble all the time,” but in general, “they’re moving really slowly right now,” Lewandowski added. “Their metabolisms will still be revving up” after six to seven months of shutdown. “The problems really begin in June.”

All of which makes this time an excellent one to begin preparations. “We had a good acorn season last fall,” which presages a season of “good wild food sources,” Lewandowski said. On the other hand, “We need some moisture, obviously.”

Perhaps bears may be more predisposed to avoid us than usual in the brief, seven-month period when it is possible to see them, in short — or maybe not. Lewandowski acknowledges their allure: “If you see a bear, don’t let it get too comfortable around your place,” he said. “Take a quick photo of it, and then yell at it to scare it off. Don’t try to get closer. We don’t want them to get habituated to human sources of food.”

Kircher advises keeping neighbors apprised about bear sightings, if they happen. “If everyone works together, you’ll all be better off,” Kircher said. “Once people get in the habit, it’s really easy to keep bears happy and away from your property. Remember to keep good, smelly things away, and you’ll all be in better shape.”

For complete information on how to protect bears and keep them wild, visit cpw.state.co.us/bears.