It might not look like it outside, but spring is in the air and Colorado black bears are emerging from a long winter's nap.
Although it's hard to track exactly how many bears are out there, wildlife officials said the frequency of sightings indicate that Summit County has a healthy bear population.
Living with bears is part of what makes this area special, wildlife officials said. But sharing habitat with these wild creatures comes with responsibility.
"We enjoy the forest and the wildlife and the scenery," said U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Ashley Nettles. "That's why we live here. But what we forget sometimes is that bears aren't in our habitat, we have encroached into theirs. We need to be cautious and do what we can to protect and enjoy them."
Bears can come out of hibernation as early as late February and March, but the bulk of the bears, including those in Summit County, emerge from their dens in mid-April. When bears hibernate, their bodies become dormant. They subsist on stored body fat, but don't eat, drink, urinate or defecate.
"It's pretty fascinating," Knox said. "When they are hibernating everything slows. Their bodies pretty much shut down."
One thing bears are able to do during hibernation is give birth. When many female bears, or sows, emerge from their dens they will be accompanied by babies.
"If you come across a cub, assume that mama's nearby," Knox said. "Don't get between a sow and her cub."
A black bear's normal response to any perceived danger is to run away, but caught off guard a bear can turn aggressive.
"They might huff and charge but usually stop before they come in contact with anyone," Knox said. "But they are wild animals. With any bear keep your distance."
Wildlife officials said there is nothing wrong with viewing a bear in the wilderness.
"If you see a bear while hiking, give it space and enjoy a cool wildlife sighting," Nettles said. "It's amazing how many bears there are and how infrequently people actually see them in the woods."
The problem comes when bears are spotted too close to human dwellings.
Bears are sharing space with a growing human population. Wildlife officials agree we are more of a threat to bears than they are to us.
Nettles described bears as "forest generalists." They will live anywhere they can find food and shelter - the things they need to survive. Bears are also opportunists. This makes them keen on human food sources.
Food found near homes, campgrounds, vehicles or communities are fair game for bears.
"Bears are so intelligent that once they learn about human food sources, they will start looking for it," Knox said. "It's hard to un-teach a bear."
Now is a good time to start bear-proofing properties.
Not everyone realizes it, but bird feeders attract bears and should be taken down in the springtime or put inside at night. Also, residents who keep cat and dog food on the porch are asking for trouble.
"You are almost guaranteed to invite a bear as a visitor," Nettles said. "Not only is it not good for them, you are also creating a bear-human safety issue."
Human trash often equates to an easy meal for bears. Don't put trash out until morning, or better yet, use bear-proof trashcans, wildlife officials suggested.
If you don't, bears will figure it out and start making the rounds, Knox said.
Wildlife officials said they're amazed by the number of people who still leave trash out overnight, or who don't pick up after themselves.
"A lot of it is from lack of education or recognizing what the consequences can be," Nettles said.
Once bears are introduced to human food, they can go to great lengths to get their paws on it. "Bears are incredibly strong. They can peal off the door of a car if they want too," Knox said.
Bears that become aggressive in their pursuit of an easy meal often must be destroyed.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials operate with a two-strikes rule. The first time a bear becomes a nuisance to humans, it will be tagged and relocated.
The second time officials are forced to use a "hands-on" approach to bear control, they have to kill the animal.
"The public doesn't like to see that happen, but it is the public that sometimes puts the bear in that situation," Nettles said.
Even relocating the bear is becoming a more difficult option. It's getting harder and harder to find habitat that doesn't already house a bear or human population, wildlife officials said.
"We are focusing on trying to educate people and solve conflict issues to keep bears from getting into trouble in the first place," Knox said.
If someone sees signs of a bear, or sees a bear close to human property, residents are urged to take proper measures not to persuade the bear to come back.
"Talk to the neighbors and make it a community effort," Knox suggested.
If a bear starts acting aggressively, breaks into property or becomes a human safety issue, residents are urged to call wildlife authorities.