An early spring may have arrived in Southwest Colorado, evident by the region’s first bear sighting this week a few miles north of Bayfield.
Bear expert Lyle Willmarth spotted a large male bear crawling out of a riverbed that appeared to be traveling east into timber, he said in an interview Thursday. It did not appear the bear would go back to the den, he said.
Willmarth, who studied bears for decades in Colorado, said he’s never seen a bear this early in the season. He’s seen tracks toward the end of March before, but never the animals.
“We’re just having an early spring, there’s no way to get around that,” said Willmarth, who formerly worked as a wildlife technician for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
While a bear sighting this early in the season is “odd,” Joe Lewandowski, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman for the Western Slope, said it’s “nothing to be alarmed about.”
“It’s unusual, but it’s not unheard of for a bear to be out this time of year when the weather warms up,” Lewandowski said. “They stir and start looking around, but most of the time they go back to their dens.”
Recent warm weather may have woken some bears in the region, but Lewandowski said Monday’s sighting is not the beginning of bear season as we know it. That usually begins around the end of April or beginning of May, he said. There’s not enough natural food to sustain bears this early in the season, he said.
A CPW study of black bears in and around Durango found recent patterns of drought in Colorado are cause for more bear-human conflict. The animals often forge in urban areas when there is a shortage of natural food, according to the study.
Southwest Colorado is experiencing moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“This is not a great time for a bear to be wandering around,” Lewandowski said. “There’s not a lot of natural food available.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife received 517 reports of bears in 2019 across the region, which includes an area from the top of Wolf Creek Pass, west to the Utah line (including the top of Red Mountain Pass). Of the reports, 189 were related to bears getting into trash and 143 were related to other food sources.
Bird feeders attracted at least 49 bears, according to reports to CPW. Bears have a habit of getting into unlocked vehicles – 31 bear break-ins were reported in 2019 – or walking into open garages – which was reported 16 times last year.
It’s always safe in Colorado to secure trash, keep garage doors closed and shut low-level windows to avoid bear contact, Lewandowski said. Lock your vehicles at night to stop bears from breaking in and take down your bird feeders, CPW recommends.
Anyone with concerns about bears or any other wildlife can call the Durango wildlife office at 247-0855.