Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates there are over 20,000 bears in Colorado and that the population is stable and growing. The black bear is the only species of bear in the state. Despite the name, they can be brown, blonde, cinnamon, and black in color.

Rick Spitzer/Courtesy photo

It’s that time of year when black bears are coming out of hibernation. Bear hibernation in Colorado usually lasts from early November to mid-March, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In the wintertime, bears enter a deep sleep state called torpor.

Bears are not true hibernators, like marmots, who will sleep all winter no matter what. Torpor is a less extreme form of hibernation. Hibernation versus torpor is a matter of how deep the sleep is and if an animal wakes up.

A bear’s body is too big to drop its body temperature low enough to sleep all winter without waking, so bears sleep and then have active periods where they are awake. When awake, bears have normal body temperature and heart rate, and when they are asleep the body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, and metabolic rate drop. Black bears are already starting to emerge, which comes with a set of challenges: How do we keep our trash and our food out of their stomachs?

When bears wake up, there are some things to remember. Black bears have an incredible sense of smell. With a nose that is 100 times more sensitive than ours, a bear can smell food 5 miles away, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Bears need a strong-smelling nose to be able to forage effectively. Bears are also very smart, so if there is a location where they will easily find food they will keep coming back. 

Keeping this in mind, there are a number of ways to avoid having pilfered campsites and trash cans. Front country campgrounds in this area reliably have bear-proof storage in the campsites. However, if you are off the beaten path, consider a backpacking bear-proof container or keeping food and scented items inside a hard-sided car that is locked. If you put bird feeders out near your home, be sure to take them inside to avoid bears ransacking them for the seeds.

Black bears are incredibly smart animals, so the issue becomes when that big brain of theirs figures out that humans usually keep food or waste near them. Once a bear recognizes the places where it can consistently get a meal, it will try to get its paws on someone’s not-so-nutritious garbage. If black bears consistently find food, the bear will put in more and more effort to get into areas like garbage cans and bear-proof containers.

If you encounter a bear, use your reasoning. If the bear is far enough away and hasn’t taken any interest in you, consider: Do you need to interact with it? However, if a bear has taken an interest in you, gather friends and children and slowly back away from the bear. If the bear continues to show interest and comes closer to you, then have your group become large and scary and try intimidating it. Do not turn or run away.

Bears are intelligent and iconic creatures that deserve to live long lives and properly protecting your garbage and food keeps them safe. Garbage kills bears and there are very personal things you can do to try and mitigate that. So, remember when bears come out be bear aware!

Andrew Doyle is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. He is a Massachusetts tree hugger turned Minturn resident.

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