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First bear of 2021 spotted northeast of Durango

Ursines seem to be waking earlier, Bear Smart director says
A retired wildlife officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife spotted this bear while on a hike northeast of Durango.

The first bear of the year in La Plata County has been spotted, a sign the ursines may soon be waking from their winter hibernation.

Lyle Wilmarth, a retired wildlife officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife who studied bears for years, said he was hiking about two weeks ago in an area northeast of Durango when he came upon a bear awake in its den.

As he approached, the bear ran out of the den and went up a tree, Wilmarth said, which is when he snapped a photo.

“This is typical of this time of year,” he said. “They’ll wake up during the day, and go back into their den at night.”

Wilmarth said bears are still typically in hibernation mode as there is nothing for them to eat quite yet.

In years past, Wilmarth said he has put game cameras outside dens and witnessed female bears come out of a den with their cubs to play during the day, and go back to sleep at night.

“That’s the way they live for a couple weeks now,” he said.

Still, it does appear bears are waking up from hibernation earlier and earlier.

Bryan Peterson with Bear Smart Durango said the group started tracking the first bear sighting of the year around 2007. For the first five to 10 years, bears were typically seen out of their dens around mid-April.

Now, Peterson said, the norm is more around early March.

“All that’s available is grass,” Peterson said of available food sources this time of year. “And even that’s spotty.”

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife study about human-bear conflicts estimated that by 2050, bears would hibernate 15 to 40 fewer days than they did at the time of the research project around 2017.

And bears waking up at a time when no natural food sources are around could result in more human-bear conflicts, such as bears getting into trash, chicken coops or other sources made available by humans.

CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski, too, said it’s not unusual for some bears to leave their dens temporarily during warm winter days, but because there is no natural food available, they tend to return to their dens.

“Normally, bears start to emerge from winter hibernation from mid-April to early May,” he said.

But CPW urges residents to return to “bear aware” mode, Lewandowski said, which means taking down bird feeders, not leaving pet food outside, securing trash cans and waiting to put out trash cans until the mornings of pickups.

“We don’t want bears getting hooked on garbage,” he said.

Wilmarth said he’s received comments that the bear he took a photo of looks old. But he said that’s a result of den mites eating the bear’s hair as it sleeps, a common occurrence during hibernation.

“Bears have a tremendous healing system,” he said. “It’ll grow back in a couple weeks.”

So, what did Wilmarth do after snapping a photo and having a stare-down with the bear?

“I just got out of there,” he said.

According to Bear Smart Durango, the first sightings the past few years are:

2020: March 32019: April 142018: March 82017: April 25


2020: March 32019: April 142018: March 82017: April 25

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