The return of mud season as the past winter's snow begins to melt also means the re-emergence of local black bears in search of food following months of hibernation.
April and May are still early into bear season and Summit County has not had any incidents of note thus far, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife prefers to keep it that way. The state animal management agency knows such situations can materialize quickly if homeowners or visitors to the area don't uphold their duty of trying to prevent human-bear conflicts.
"If people live in bear territory in Colorado, and anymore that is a big part of the state, this is the time of year when they're active and looking for food," said Mike Porras, CPW's northwest region spokesman. "Some unfortunately learn these areas are a steady source of food from trash or some people feeding them — which is highly irresponsible — and once rewarded willingly or unwillingly, these bears are likely to come back to those areas, neighborhoods and homes."
Avoiding such episodes keeps not only the region's residents safe, but the animals themselves, too. That entails abiding by a handful of recommendations when cooking out, throwing away garbage or during overnight outdoor stays.
Using bear-proof containers and storing food properly outside of a tent are best practices to follow when camping. Bears have a heightened sense of smell, so ensuring all food and seasonings are burned off completely from grills and fires is another easy step, as is locking up trash containers completely to avert them from being habituated, making bears comfortable with human interactions. In addition, bringing bird feeders inside at night helps to keep them from becoming attractants to hungry mammals out hunting for a quick meal.
"At this point of the year we can still get late frost, and that could impact their mast crop," Porras said of typical early-season bear cuisine, like acorns, berries and forms of vegetation. "When their natural food is plentiful, they tend to stick to that. But once their systems are back to natural function they start to look at other sources of food, and if they find an easy source, they're opportunists and will certainly return."
Understanding what necessitates contacting district wildlife officers or emergency response is also important. Merely seeing a bear is not a reason to call. So long as the animal moves along, that's not cause for alarm over human welfare. It's when a bear sticks around or returns for food and shows a lack of fear that is concerning.
When that happens, CPW should be called to the scene to tranquilize and relocate the animal. The bear is tagged and taken between 50-100 miles away. From there, if it reappears or exhibits similar assertive behaviors, like repeatedly getting into the trash or posing a threat to human life, then it would be euthanized.
In some instances, the "two-strike" state policy does not apply. If a bear breaks into a home or sometimes even a tent, per an officer's discretion, the animal can instantly be killed. If a bear attacks, say, a sheep, that's also grounds for putting the animal down.
Landowners, just the same as people in the outdoors, are permitted to protect human life and that of their livestock with lethal force. Those incidents should immediately be reported to CPW, however, and a full investigation will take place to verify a proper justification for the action.
Steering clear of the scenario from the get-go remains the priority. Bears do not see humans as prey, but they can become aggressive toward people, especially if suddenly cornered or with cubs. And welcoming these massive animals back to an area repeatedly by either feeding them or ducking the charge to hinder them from becoming accustomed to certain circumstances endangers all related parties.
"If you don't follow regulations, you're putting yourself in jeopardy, and your neighbors in jeopardy," said Porras. "None of our officers wants to put down a bear, and it's the worst part of job, but they will carry out that responsibility when necessary for human health and safety."