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from The New Mexican


Nowhere to Go (Bears in New Mexico)


By WES SMALLING/The New Mexican

Reports of bears rummaging through residential neighborhoods has the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish bracing for a busy summer - especially if drought conditions continue.

The department, which traps and relocates or kills problem bears, is already receiving about two calls a week at its regional offices, and The Wildlife Center in Espaņola is caring for seven bears that were starving to death when captured from the wild.

In the Hyde Park area of Santa Fe, a bear has been rummaging through garbage cans that residents have been putting out the night before garbage pickup, an action that could lead to the bear's death, said The Wildlife Center's head veterinarian, Dr. Kathleen Ramsey.

The department has a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy, meaning officers will trap and relocate problem bears only twice. The third time a bear is a problem, it is destroyed. The Hyde Park bear reportedly has two ear tags, meaning it has already been moved twice by officers, Ramsey said.

"If game and fish have to come out to deal with that bear, they're going to shoot it. People leaving their trash out all night, they are drawing the bear in," she said. "We were in trouble last year, and we're still in trouble. We have lots of bears out there, and we have no food" in the forest.

Failed berry and acorn crops are mostly to blame for last summer's unprecedented number of bear-human encounters. The first fatal bear attack recorded in New Mexico occurred last August when a bear killed an elderly woman in her home in Mora. From July to September, the department received 324 complaints about bears. In 2001, 181 bears were killed as a result of complaints - 52 were struck by vehicles, 12 were killed by electric fences or unknown causes and 40 were destroyed by department officers, 64 by landowners, 13 by officers from other agencies.

Bill Dunn, supervising predator biologist for the department, said the calls are starting to come in. "So far, it hasn't been anything abnormal. The one thing we have seen that's abnormal is they've been underweight, severely underweight. In some cases, yearlings that should be 35 pounds are coming in at 10 pounds, 10 to 15 pounds, a half to a third of what they should be."

Ramsey believes the region's bears were so undernourished last year that most sows were too weak to have cubs. If drought conditions continue, this year could be just as hard on the bears, she said. None of the seven bears in her care at The Wildlife Center is younger than a year old.

"I don't think there's a cub in New Mexico," she said. "None of the females had enough weight to have cubs last year, so I don't think we're going to see any cubs at all. They're either yearlings or older."

A study released last year by the department estimated New Mexico's bear population at 5,000 to 6,000. Sandia Mountain Bear Watch, a bear-advocacy group, plans to ask the state Game Commission to cancel fall bear hunts in the Sandia and Manzano Mountains because the group believes bear populations there are under too much pressure from hunting and from being trapped and relocated. The department's Dunn said there are no plans to ban fall hunts.

"We'll continue monitoring the situation throughout the summer," he said. "Carrying capacity (of the habitat) now is less than it was two years ago, for instance, because of the drought. So reducing the number of bears is not necessarily the wrong thing. Those that are left will basically have a better chance for survival based on the amount of food for bears."

The department asks residents near forested areas - especially those near the Borrego fire in the Truchas area - to check their properties for anything that might draw bears and other wildlife into their yards, such as garbage, bird feeders, barbecue grills, compost piles and ripening fruit trees. Pets and their food should be kept inside. Small livestock can be safeguarded with an electric fence.

Bears in residential areas can be reported to the Game and Fish Department at 476-8000. For advice on how to keep bears away from your home, call Jan Hayes at Sandia Mountain Bear Watch at (505) 281-9292.

Copyright 2002 Santa Fe New Mexican

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