By Cheryl Bell, Pajarito Group Wildlife chair
It’s that time of year when bears are trying to pack on the pounds; spending up to 20 hours a day looking for 20,000 calories to prepare for their winter sleep. Most of us live in an urban-wildland interface so it’s no longer possible for bears to have their own habitat and humans to have ours. We have to take the right steps to reduce human/bear interactions.
Bears are incredibly smart and can smell seven times better than dogs. So, do the math, if a bear could spend 20 hours eating one acorn at a time in the forest or just two hours knocking over a few trashcans and slurping down a hummingbird feeder or two to reach her calorie goal, which do you think she’ll choose?
For example, last month I took a drive up to Los Alamos the night before trash pickup. I counted 33 out of 55 houses next to the open space that had left their trash bins unsecured on the street. That is 60% of houses in an area with a great deal of bear activity leaving their trash out for our nocturnal friends to rummage through.
On the bright side, some counties are tackling this issue. In Los Alamos, bear-resistant trash locks are currently available and the county is developing an ordinance requiring trash to be put out the morning of pickup. Grizzly-proof cans will be available next summer for purchase for those who have particularly challenging bear/trash issues.
Also bird feeders never attract just birds.The good news is that people who feed the birds have already developed an appreciation for local wildlife. The bad news is that many continue to feed the birds even after they catch a bear emptying their feeders. Caring for one type of wildlife while creating a problem of another does not a wildlife steward make. Save the seed for winter when bears are hibernating and birds actually need it.
As for beehives, chicken coops and compost piles: electrify. Period.
Got fruit trees? Pick up fallen fruit on a regular basis. If you have an overwhelming amount, invite friends and neighbors to share in your bounty.
Why not just relocate “problem” bears to that Bear Nirvana in the bountiful wilderness far from our stinky trash and feeders?
First, the wilderness surrounding many of our communities is their home. Second, relocation is rarely successful. A successful relocation depends on the age and gender of the bear, as well as how far away they are taken and their proximity to humans in the new location. An adult female is more likely to try to return to her home territory than a juvenile male with no established territory. The farther a bear is taken, the less likely he is to return but proximity to humans will have an impact if bears are attracted to a new town that offers the same delicious smells.
When bears are relocated, they may be put in the territory of a male bear, who will kill them immediately. Of those that try to return to their home territory, many are killed by cars. New Mexico Game and Fish does not put tracking collars on relocated bears, just ear tags. The outcome for New Mexico bears is only known if one of these animals is later killed by car or hunter. However, research data from other states indicates relocation success is minimal at best.
When Game and Fish is called to deal with nuisance behavior, they will either relocate or euthanize the bear. In autumn when bears are desperate to put on weight, game officers are busy with hunting season and sometimes do not have the time or resources to relocate bears, so they opt for euthanasia. So far this year, New Mexico Game and Fish has killed 58 bears and relocated 19.
When that bear comes over the mountain, and wanders through our towns, smelling for food, if everyone works together to make sure they are not rewarded, we will see a reduction in their food-seeking activities. In addition to eliminating sources of food, please remember to employ some common sense, respect and tolerance when you see a bear walking down your street or sitting in your apple tree. If they are causing no harm, enjoy the fact that you are lucky enough to live in bear country.
Bear photo by Mary Katherine Ray.