Photo of bear for article on in Sierra Club Rio Grande website on Game Commission rule changes for carnivores

By Jody Benson,
Pajarito Group chair

On a very hot June 18, during the Valles Caldera Marathon, a mother bear attacked marathoner Karen Williams, who ran too close to one of her cubs. The injuries required Williams to be transported to UNM Hospital for treatment.

Reasonable people would recognize that in this encounter the mama bear was just doing her thing. She was being defensive and protective. Reasonable people understand that the single encounter would not give a predator a taste for human flesh so that she continues to go after humans (a myth that Williams’ research nullifies), nor would the bear be a threat to another human who isn’t threatening her cubs. The mama bear was simply acting as any other good mother would.

As in most bear/human interactions, the state’s action was predictable. Two days after the encounter, NM Game and Fish, aided by a radio collar with a GPS tracking device (the bear had been tagged for a black bear study) tracked down the mama and killed her.

What was not predictable is that Karen Williams, an emergency-room nurse in Los Alamos who spends a lot of time in the wilderness, decided to (1) research rabies and the rules requiring an animal’s unevaluated “euthanasia,” and (2) enlist local state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard to draft a bill that rewrites the rule that all wild animals that bite humans must be euthanized.

The current rule directs that almost all wild animals that bite humans must be euthanized and the brain extracted so the DOH can test it for rabies. But Williams, an endurance runner who spends many hours on the trails, wants to create a protocol that uses an evidence-based, scientific approach to determine whether a bear should be euthanized.

Rather than “destroying” all animals, the fate of the offender would be assessed through a decision tree that includes: (1) the species’ potential for rabies (the rule already exempts rabbits and rodents, for example, because they don’t carry rabies — bears can be under a similar exemption), (2) whether the action is predatory or defensive/protective, and (3) whether the attack location is in human or wildlife habitat.

The logic of the new rule can’t be disputed. Bears rarely get rabies. The reaction of this mama bear was provoked only because she thought Williams threatened her cubs.

Williams’ research shows that since 2012, there have been 85 cases of rabies in New Mexico, primarily in skunks (42) and bats (30), with one coyote, seven foxes, two raccoons, two dogs, and one ringtail. She also cites a 1963 study indicating that bears might be comparatively rabies-resistant: a black bear inoculated with 1,000 MLD50 of the virus showed no signs of disease over a five-month period, while a dog and three arctic foxes that had received 100 MLD50 of the same inoculum died of rabies in 67 to 106 days.

If those data and that decision tree show that this bear — a species that rarely gets rabies, a mamma protecting her babies in a wildlands far from normal human interactions — is not a threat, then why kill her?

That’s the question Williams poses. That’s why she wants to change this archaic rule.

“If it’s a bat,” she said, “then it needs to go. Bats, skunks, foxes … but if it’s a bear, then look at what happened. If it was just doing its thing, then don’t euthanize it.”

In creating the bill, Garcia Richard doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Again, Williams’ research found reasonable rules in other states (including hunter-centric Alaska) that address “predatory versus defensive” behavior.

Garcia Richard has already submitted new language to the Legislative Council Service. They are using Williams’ research to craft the bill.

After the bill is refined, it goes to the chief clerk of the Legislators’ chamber, where it is assigned a number, after which it goes to (usually at least) two legislative committees. Within the committees, expert witnesses present testimony, followed by audience comments. the committees decide whether to advance the bill to the floor.

Once the bill is approved, it goes to the governor, who may sign a bill, veto it or take no action (a bill that is “no action” can become either a law or a pocket veto, depending on when the bill is sent for the governor’s consideration).

As Sierra Club members, can help move the bill out of committee by attending hearings and offering our comments. Attending committee meetings where the bill is being heard is more important than attending the session on the floor of the House or Senate. Because there’s no public comment on the floor, the Committee hearing is the only place you can have a voice. Please come prepared with a succinct, science-based comment. The Sierra Club will also send out an online action alert. Watch for the notice, use it to write to your legislator, and forward the link.

Finally, Garcia Richard has the draft bill in process. Garcia Richard is a friend of the environment. In this election she faces Sharon Stover, who is well funded. A vote for Stephanie is critical so that we don’t lose the push for a reasonable, data-driven approach to wildlife management. Early voting begins Oct. 11.

Karen Williams’ story

“The bear was just doing her thing,” Williams said.

There had been about 150 runners ahead of her in the Valles Caldera Marathon with no problem, but as she ran over the rise, Williams saw the cub. Maybe two. Then the mama bear saw Williams.

Williams has always had dogs. She knows how to read animals. When the black bear attacked as Williams inadvertently ran too close to the cubs, Williams knew that the bear was as scared as she. “She was huffing. I could tell she was scared, worried about her kids,” Williams said.

“I raised my hands and yelled, ‘No!’ which is what you’re supposed to do with mountain lions. The bear charged. I thought, ‘crap, that’s not going to work.’ I saw only one cub that had run up a tree. Where the other was, I don’t know. Maybe in the creek.”

“The bear was huffing the whole time except when I screamed. That’s when she stopped huffing and whacked me.” A bear expert whom Williams later talked to said bears don’t like “that kind of noise.” Williams said, “The noise was coming out of my head, so she moved from mauling my arm to biting my face and neck.” It was Williams’s CamelBak water pack that kept the bear from doing more damage.

Williams stayed down. “The bear slapped like a cat playing with a dead animal. She knew I wasn’t dead, but she just wanted to go to her cubs. I didn’t look at them because I knew she was nervous. After about 10 minutes, I heard them walking away.” It was then that, on that hot June day, Williams was finally able to move off the sun-baked trail and into the shade to wait for the next runners to come by and organize a rescue. She was transported by chopper to UNM Hospital.

On June 20, New Mexico Game and Fish tracked down and shot Mama bear. The orphaned cubs wandered for five days before they were chased up a tree and rescued.

Anyone bitten by a wild animal is required to have the series of rabies shots. Williams’ medical team told her to get the series, but Williams knew the bear wasn’t rabid. “It was just doing what it needed to do.”

When she got out of UNM Hospital and found a pharmacy that carried the rabies vaccine as well as the recommended rabies immune globulin, the cost (not reimbursed by her insurance) was around $1,000.

“The epidemiologist said that the person who got bitten doesn’t get to decide whether the bear gets killed. The person only gets to decide whether to get the rabies treatment,” Williams said. Given that the potential for dangerous side effects were far greater than the bear having rabies, Williams opted out.

Williams cites costs to cash-strapped New Mexico as another nudge that could help rewrite the current rule. She lists the expenses of: the team to kill the bear; the veterinarian extracting the brain; the DNA testing and other lab expenses; finding/capturing/transporting the cubs; and state payment for treatment if insurance won’t.

Asked if Williams has any “bearmares,” she said, “If it had been a two-legged predator, I would’ve had nightmares. But it was a bear, not a human. No,” she said, “I don’t have bearmares. The only reason I have a hard time sleeping is because I’m trying to get this done.”

What happened to the cubs?

After about a week, trackers found the two cubs. The trackers’ dogs chased the cubs up a tree. Hungry and dehydrated, the brother and sister were plucked from about 90 feet up by a boom truck borrowed from an electric company, and transported to Kathleen Ramsey’s Cottonwood Rehab near Española (www.facebook.com/CottonwoodRehab/).

The sister, Valley Girl, weighed about 12 pounds, and brother Cowboy weighed a scrawny nine. They grow stronger, and Cottonwood Rehab plans to release them at the end of October so they can find a place to hibernate for the winter. The expectation is that in spring, after hibernation, the yearlings will have forgotten their lives in proximity to humans. The hope is that by the time Cowboy and Valley Girl wake up, the Legislature and governor will also have awakened to replace a rule based on unexamined generalities with one based on a science-based decision tree.

To donate to the cubs’ upkeep, please go to www.landofenchantment.org. Los Alamos residents can also take excess fruit for the cubs to the Los Alamos Eco Station: 505-662-8163, 3701 E. Jemez Road, Los Alamos.

Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., Saturday/Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Changing protocol for euthanizing bears