First bear of 2012 sighted

Season gets into full swing in April

The first bear was sighted out of its den last week in the Durango Ridge Ranch subdivision west of the city. The hungry ursine was spotted in a tree raiding a golden eagle’s nest for eggs.

“It’s not unusual for bears to come out and then go back into the den,” Bryan Peterson of Bear Smart Durango said Monday from Missoula, Mont., where he is attending an international conference about human-bear conflicts. “If they don’t find something to eat they won’t stay out.”

The report of the bear last week reached him via email, Peterson said.

The bear’s emergence is on the early side, Peterson said. The first or second week of April is typical.

Bears aren’t ravenously hungry at first, Peterson said. Plant material is enough until their digestive systems, dormant for months, get up to speed.

If this year is anything like last year, bears will be raiding hundreds of area trash cans in the months to come.

Last year saw 598 reports of bears in trash out of 825 total sightings in La Plata County. This kind of activity is not unusual for bear season, according to data from Bear Smart and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The average number of annual trash raids for 2007-2011 (2008 was not included because of incomplete data) was 617. Total sightings for the same years averaged 969.

La Plata County passed a wildlife-resistant trash-container ordinance in 2008, and the city of Durango passed a wildlife ordinance in 2010, in an attempt to limit the amount of trash available to bears.

The emphasis is more on getting people to change their habits than it is collecting fines. Last year, only one violation was issued out of 39 written warnings issued by city code enforcement officers. And, in all but one case, the written warnings resulted in the residents obtaining bear-resistant trash containers.

In the county, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office recorded 21 bear calls and issued two warnings resulting in no violations.

In Durango, a fine of $200 is levied for the first offense unless the violator buys or leases a bear-proof container. A second offense brings a fine of $300 and each subsequent offense gets a fine of $500.

“The city is trying,” Peterson said. “But the number of overturned garbage cans shows there is room for improvement.”

Bear Smart also tracks bear mortality. From 2001 to 2010, hunters killed an average of 122 bears annually, according to Parks and Wildlife. The actual numbers ranged from 165 in 2001 to 66 in 2004.

An average of 28 non-hunting bear deaths occurred each year during the same period. Non-hunting deaths are bears killed by landowners, vehicles, electrocution or nuisance bears put down by wildlife officials. The actual numbers ranged from 62 in 2001 to 5 in 2006.

Bear mortality statistics for 2011 will be available later this spring.

Bear death statistics are from Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Area 15, which includes parts or all of La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, Dolores, San Miguel, San Juan and Mineral counties.

Peterson established Bear Smart Durango to help residents learn to live in bear country. Colorado Parks and Wildlife last year started tagging and tracking bears in La Plata County as part of a management plan.

daler@durangoherald.com

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