If the natural order of events in Southwest Colorado holds true, warmer weather, longer days and blooming flowers will be followed by black bears coming out of hibernation.
While it's still a couple of weeks early - maybe three - to see a bear, La Plata County residents should know there are penalties for humans who aid and abet ursines in finding food. For the uninitiated, that means leaving garbage available for bears or other marauders such as raccoons.
Once bears wake up from their winter nap, they should fend for themselves. La Plata County and the city of Durango both have ordinances that penalize people who provide chow for bears by improper storage of garbage.
Residents of unincorporated areas face fines of $200 or more under an ordinance approved in December.
Residents and businesses must put their trash in either a bear-proof container or in a secured area, except from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. the day of pickup.
A violation occurs when bears or other animals get into improperly stored trash. The first violation incurs a $200 fine. Subsequent violations are $300 and $500. The first-time violator can avoid the fine by buying a bear-proof garbage container at a cost of $200 to $250.
Under an ordinance approved in September 2007, Durango residents aren't penalized the first time a bear or other animal gets into their trash can. If city workers find trash spilled by a bear a second time, the resident will have to rent a bear-proof garbage container from the city for $6 a month during bear season, usually from April 15 to November 15.
Hundreds of bear-human contacts were reported in 2007 because of the dearth of natural forage - acorns, berries and chokecherries. Last year, a good supply of natural food reduced the number of contacts considerably.
In 2008, 228 bear sightings were recorded, said Bryan Peterson, who founded Bear Smart Durango six years ago to educate residents about living in bear country. Of those sightings, 121 were directly related to trash, he said. The sightings were recorded by Bear Smart, the city and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
This year, who knows how many sightings there will be.
"If bears went into hibernation in poor shape, they could come out early because they didn't have enough fat stored," said Patt Dorsey, area manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Durango. "But they generally emerge about April 15 because they're assured of finding at least a little food."
The early food is the aspen catkin, which blooms in response to the hours of daylight, Dorsey said.
"There can be 5 feet of snow on the ground, but the aspen blooms according to the length of the day," Dorsey said.
There have been recent reports of bears leaving hibernation in north-central Colorado but not in Southwest Colorado, she said.
Peterson said, generally speaking, it's far too early for bears to leave hibernation.
A study done in the 1990s by retired Division of Wildlife bear researcher Tom Beck found about 60 percent of males emerge in the latter half of April and about 60 percent of females emerge in the first half of May, Peterson said.
"But there are individual bears," Peterson said. "They don't follow the norm."
Nice weather or pretty flowers alone won't bring bears out, Peterson said. There has to be food.
"We've had nice weather followed by snow and now good weather again," Peterson said. "But no bears because there's no food. That's why bears hibernated in the first place."