It may seem incomprehensible – it being January – but bears are being spotted in Southwest Colorado, prompting the city of Durango to extend an emergency ordinance that hits residents with stiffer fines for failing to secure their trash.
“It’s not winter out there ... and yearling males are being spotted in alleys of Durango,” said City Councilor Sweetie Marbury. “This is a proactive way to discourage people from making some poor choices for our community.”
Last year, a poor natural food cycle – worsened by people in bear country leaving out food sources such as trash and bird feeders – led to one of the most active and destructive years for bear-human conflicts in recent history.
In 2017, 36 bears were euthanized in La Plata County after running into trouble, 25 of which were located in Durango city limits. Most of those bears got into trash, attacked livestock or broke into vehicles.
Trying to curb the problem, the city of Durango in September enacted an emergency ordinance that held tougher repercussions for residents within city limits that had a bear get into their trash.
Specifically, the ordinance eliminated a courtesy warning and hit residents with a $100 fine for a first violation and $200 for subsequent violations. The ordinance was extended to mid-January after unusually warm temperatures in November.
But nearing mid-January, winter still hasn’t arrived in full force. According to National Weather Service data, the month of January is on track to be 5.4 degrees warmer than average, based on records that go back 30 years.
As a result, bears are forgoing their deep sleep during the winter months and leaving their dens.
Bryan Peterson of Bear Smart Durango said he has received numerous reports of bears spotted this winter.
“It used to be unheard of for them to be out this time of year, but in recent years, it’s not super uncommon,” he said. “If bears are finding human food, they’ll stay out longer than normal.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski said in the 14 years he has worked for the state agency, he has never heard of or seen a bear running about in January.
Still, the combination of warm weather, which likely confuses a bear’s system, and available human-food sources, in the form of trash or bird feeders, are incentive for the animals to leave their dens.
Lewandowski said CPW supports the city extending the emergency ordinance. He said it is essential that people properly secure food sources, so bears don’t become accustomed to finding food in winter.
“That would set a precedent we don’t want,” he said. “If they’re not finding food, they will go back to their den.”
Durango city councilors are set to extend the emergency ordinance for another 60 days at their meeting Tuesday.
“It seems only reasonable considering the weather conditions we have,” said Councilor Dean Brookie. “Especially given that we have had reports of bear sightings.”
Brookie, too, said when he returned to Durango from vacation over the holidays, he found bear scat beneath a tree on his property, which is located on the grid.
“They’re here,” he said.
And, recently, social media has been abuzz about a bear cub, likely orphaned, that has been wandering around town. Colorado Parks and Wildlife said it was unaware of the bear but, if caught, would send it to a rehab facility in Del Norte that can create conditions similar to a bear den.
Throughout the bear season, the city issued 230 violations, of which 44 resulted in fines amounting to $3,500. Even after the emergency ordinance went into effect, 25 people were fined.
Durango is not the only place that has had bear activity this winter.
The Telluride Daily Planet reported this week that a bear was wandering around Mountain Village, getting into a recycling receptacle and a bird feeder, and was even caught on a security camera.
Lewandowski said there have also been reports from residents in Montrose of bear sightings.
“We would just ask that people continue to be bear aware,” he said.