Bears are beginning to wake up across Colorado. And they're hungry.
In a news release last week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said 60 percent of the state's black bears have emerged from their dens so far, which is a normal percentage at this time of the year. Most of the bears still inside are mothers with their newborn cubs, said Heather Johnson, a parks and wildlife researcher who studies bears in Colorado.
Wildlife officials estimate 17,000 to 20,000 black bears live in Colorado. Most of them can be found west of Interstate 25.
With bears coming out of hibernation, wildlife officials offered tips to avoid a bear encounter.
Hikers are asked to travel in groups, make a lot of noise and pay attention to bear tracks and claw marks on trees. On the other hand, wildlife officials advised homeowners to keep trash cans secured, avoid leaving pet food outside and take down bird feeders. They added that birds do not need to be fed in the summer.
"Bears that seek out human food resources are at a higher risk of mortality due to lethal removals by landowners or wildlife managers, vehicle collisions, electrocutions, and other factors," Johnson said in a statement. "It's best for both bears and people if the bears continue to forage on natural foods, and avoid human development."
Last year, the Colorado Springs area had a number of bear encounters that led to unfortunate consequences for the animals.
In August, a woman - identified as Jo Ann Medina - was arrested after she allegedly fed breakfast to bears. In turn, two bears were put down after they were caught returning to the woman's northwest Colorado Springs home. Wildlife records showed that she was warned about feeding bears as early as 2007, and was later cited for the misdemeanor in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Bears are known to return to a place where they find food.
Also last year, a malnourished bear cub was found asleep in Louie's Pizza in downtown Colorado Springs after he apparently sampled icing for the restaurant's cini-bread. The bear was returned to the wild.
In October, a wildlife spokesman told The Gazette that the area experienced "a late freeze" that killed off vegetation such as acorns, grasses and berries, forcing bears to search for food wherever it's available. This led a black bear - the state's only bear species - to eat trash at a Rockrimmon home. The 550-pound beast was shot by the homeowner, who told wildlife officials that he did it in self-defense because children were inside. The bear was ultimately euthanized because it had been badly injured in the right shoulder.
Bears typically begin to wake up from hibernation in April, when snow begins to melt.
But in Durango, a handful of bears were spotted in March, which could be the result of climate change, said Bryan Peterson, executive director of a nonprofit education group called Bear Smart Durango. Still at this time, food is typically very scarce.
"If bears are coming out of their dens earlier than years past," Peterson said, "then that may lead to conflicts with people."