When Z Corcorran went out on the back deck of her home in Forest Lakes the day after Thanksgiving, she found a bear had broken into a small refrigerator, polished off a tray of leftovers and took liberties with the stash of wine and beer.
“He drank a big portion of my boxed wine and punctured who knows how many beer cans, and I was not happy,” she said. “You could see tracks of him leaving, and they weren’t very straight.”
Corcorran, who lives about 20 miles northeast of Durango, said she usually keeps trash and other bear attractants locked up in the garage. Since she moved to her home in 2001, she’s never had a bear take anything off the deck.
“We figured they were gone by now.”
Though Cocorran’s encounter happened in late November, additional reports from residents in Forest Lakes indicate bear activity in La Plata County has once again pushed into December.
While not an unusual occurrence, Bryan Peterson, of BearSmart Durango, said bears heading to dens later than usual is a trend that wildlife managers are keeping an eye on.
And there’s no mystery as to why bears, more often than not males, are forgoing the long sleep for winter romps, he said.
“The longer they keep finding food, the longer they’ll stay out,” Peterson said. “It’s so simple: If we quit providing them with access to human food, they will go to sleep.”
A common misconception is that bears hibernate, a state when an animal’s heart rate and body temperature drop dramatically, which turns down their metabolisms to save energy through winter when food supplies are short.
Black bears, though, go into what’s known as “torpor.” Like hibernation, metabolism, heart rate and body temperatures all drop, but not to such an extreme level where the animal can’t or doesn’t wake up.
And if food is accessible, there’s no reason for bears to outlast the winter huddled up in a den, said Jon Beckmann, a wildlife ecologist with Wildlife Conservation Society.
“The whole reason they go into dens is because of a lack of food,” said Beckmann, who works in the Lake Tahoe region on the California-Nevada line in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The issue is especially of concern in Lake Tahoe. There, a number of bears have completely forgone denning in favor of marauding the usual food sources left by humans, namely garbage.
Carl Lackey, with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said the trend started around 2000 as a recovering bear population adapted to a more urban environment. He said tracking studies over the past decade revealed some bears even learned what day was trash pickup.
“We noticed on garbage day they’d wake up, hit a few garbage cans, and then go lay down until the following week,” Lackey said. “Bottom line, it’s just not a good thing to leave your food out. And it’s a year-round responsibility when you live in bear habitat.”
Lackey dispelled the notion warmer temperatures are to blame. He said even in years of heavy snow bears can be found where there is trash.
However, through 20 years of educating the public about living with bears, Beckmann said the problem has slightly improved. Yet just as important in that process, he said, is the enforcement aspect.
“You always have that segment of the population that doesn’t get the message or refuses to respond to the message,” he said. “So you need some form of ordinance or law in the books to have enforcement along with education.”
In Durango, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and BearSmart head public outreach on bear education. The town and county also have ordinances concerning bears.
CPW found that in two study areas in Durango, only 60 percent of residents on the north end of town and 35 percent on the south end were in compliance.
“Reducing human-bear conflict will only come from residents proactively changing their behavior in not allowing bears access to human foods or by behavioral change being required by those with the ability to demand as much,” Peterson said.
Heather Johnson, a wildlife researcher with CPW, said a specific study on how human development influences bear denning in Durango will be published this winter, with preliminary evidence suggesting humans are affecting the animal’s natural process.
She said the study is limited because only female bears are collared, and they den reliably around Oct. 20.
In the meantime, Johnson suggested residents keep bird feeders down and food locked up until January.
“At least until all the stragglers go to bed,” she said.