2011 Update on New Mexico’s Black Bears

By Sandia Mountain BearWatch and Member Lyn Canham
Sandia Mountain BearWatch is now twenty years old. Their mission when started, as well as today, is to help ensure a stable black bear population in New Mexico. The organization has never taken an anti-hunting stance, but will continue to take a strong stand against poor bear management and unethical hunting practices.

Last year, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) took the most destructive step in the state’s history concerning the management of New Mexico’s state mammal, the black bear. NMDGF recommended that the New Mexico Game Commissioner vote to kill 686 bears per year for the next four years of 2011 – 2014, which would destroy a total of 2,744 bears out of an unknown, uncounted state population. The Commission voted for this proposal. This is more than double the annual rate of the past decade. What is most worrisome is the fact that the upcoming hunts will include 303 females per year, for a total of 1,212 females over a four-year period. Since sows (females) are the future, it seems this Game Department wants their actions to have a permanent effect. Furthermore, the NMDGF-sanctioned sow killings will result in more orphaned, starving cubs wandering our woods and roadways, as some of the large destructive bear kill-offs have caused in the Eastern U.S. BearWatch can only conclude that New Mexico’s state mammal is now deemed a throw-away species by the present management.

A wildlife department’s main job should be to balance conservation and survival of a species with professional and recreational hunting interests. For some reason, more recently, this Game Department and Commission has chosen to forget the fact that New Mexico’s wildlife belongs to all of the citizens of the state, not just those who might profit from the taking of the state’s wildlife.

In another unfortunate development for the bears, the NM Game Commission also voted the cutoff time in each hunting zone to be 100% of that zone’s limit (which is up from 90%). This means that more bears will likely be killed beyond the 686/303 limit, due to the time delays in the reporting shutdown notification system.

In fact, this enormous bear hunt is not sustainable. The hunt numbers and bear population will drop quickly in a few short years. For example, in 2002 after an elderly woman in northern NM was killed by a young bear, the NMDGF held an unlimited bear hunt with approximately 745 bears killed. In 2003, hunters took 456 bears, with that number dropping to just 238 by 2004. These dropping numbers represent the smaller availability of the hunted population. This downward death spiral was halted in 2004 through insistent efforts by BearWatch and its supporters, achieving a limited hunt of 334 bears.

The large bear hunts over the next four years will not eliminate the people/habituated bear problem that the NMDGF has used as one of the main reasons to conduct this reduction hunt. Only education can solve that problem. The NMDGF has not allocated measurable amounts of time and resources to perform the education mission. In contrast, BearWatch has taken on that statewide job for the last 20 years, and it seems the appreciation for that is to destroy the very bears that BearWatch worked so hard to protect.

In future years, there will be a flood of hound hunters from all over the U.S. for one of the longest (four months) and most generous bear hunts in the country. These bear hunters will be hunting bears in the high country, not hunting the habituated bears in our non-bear-proofed mountain towns and dumps. The ‘problem’ bears created by the lack of adequate education will eventually be killed outright by way of the “three-strikes rule” (when NMDGF responds to a call from the public, the bear is subdued, tagged, and released elsewhere – up to three times). Or, a ‘problem’ bear may be killed indirectly through releasing them in areas occupied by other competitive bears, or where bear hunters will be waiting for them with their hounds, or on the state’s roads as these bears try to make their way back to home ranges.

It is now up to those of us who live in and visit New Mexico’s mountain areas and communities to go to even greater lengths to save our bears. BearWatch is stepping up its efforts this year with a “Have a Heart…Protect Our Bears” campaign. Their very successful efforts over the years engaging the media, informing the public, and rallying supporters to the cause of bears will be continued. After two full seasons (winter and spring) of drought throughout New Mexico, this effort will be even more important. It has been one of the driest starts to a year in the state’s recorded history and over a third of New Mexico is currently classified in Exceptional Drought, the highest drought rating, including the Sacramento Mountains. Sub-freezing temperatures late into the spring have killed mast crops like acorns, apples, and other fruits that are critical sources of food for the state’s bears. The bears emerging from hibernation this spring are now threatened by dire food shortages and hardly need to face a record-size hunt or run from the professional hound hunters for months.

Below are the most tried and true BearWatch Tips for co-existing peacefully and successfully with New Mexico’s black bears. Foremost on this list would be: Unless you or your neighbor has a truly dangerous situation with a bear, do NOT call the Department of Game and Fish!

The over-arching advice, the motto even, of BearWatch is:
A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR! Do not feed a bear … ever.

More specific tips for living with bears follow. Many describe how to feed birds and not bears, so you can enjoy your feathered friends while protecting the dwindling bear population:

  • Keep trash in a bear-proof garbage container or stored in a sturdy metal shed or closed garage. Put out garbage only on morning of pickup.
  • Don’t feed pets outdoors or leave pet dishes or store pet food outdoors.
  • Hang birdseed feeders from sturdy metal wires suspended between trees or poles high enough off the ground that a bear can’t reach it (e.g., 10 feet). Position your feeders 10 feet from each end of the poles/limbs. Stop feeding for a time if seed is accumulating on the ground. Store birdseed in a closed container in a sturdy shed or the garage.
  • If you have high eaves, or second story eaves, you can hang feeders from them.
  • Feed small amounts of seed that will last only several hours in the morning. This will work only if you’ve had no bear visitors. If a bear is in your birdseed, you will need to stop feeding for a time and try one of the other bird feeding tips.
  • Stop feeding birds from July 1 thru Oct. l.
  • Feed suet and peanut butter only in winter when bears are in hibernation.
  • Bring in hummingbird feeders at night.
  • Keep barbeque grills clean.
  • Keep kitchen windows and doors closed on summer nights.
  • For small livestock and chickens, use a sturdy metal shed and/or a 5-strand electric fence using an approved fence charger with alternating current. Be sure to check with the county inspector for guidelines and/limitations.
  • Put an electric fence around beehives.
  • Don’t plant fruit trees or berry bushes near your home. Remove fruit before it ripens to stop bears from climbing and breaking branches. Remove fallen fruit.
  • Don’t add melon rinds or fruit to a compost pile except in winter.
  • Don’t feed other wildlife as it will attract bears too.
  • Don’t leave food, groceries, pet food or birdseed in your car overnight.
  • If a bear is drinking from your swimming pool or hot tub, put water out as far from your house and neighbor’s homes as possible.
  • Keep all poisons inside your house; also many bears die from ingesting garbage bags.
  • Keep woodpiles and junk away from the house. Bears will hunt for rodents that live there.
  • Please understand that a trapped bear does not transplant well. There are no pristine, unpopulated relocation areas left in New Mexico. A large percentage of bears die from being relocated.

Please stay updated on the status of New Mexico’s bears, check the tips for living with bears, and utilize this informational resource to educate others, by visiting the BearWatch website: http://sandiamountainbearwatch.org

  • Thanks, Lyn.  I especially appreciate the information about what homeowners can do to make living in “Bear Country” safer for humans and bears, too.

  • Bopeep1

    Thank you so much for this enlightening information. Last summer, NMDGF tracked and killed a bear, after dark, in my neighborhood, which is in the village. All the neighbors were extremely upset and felt this was unnecessary. If we had read this article, the situation might have been averted. The bear was attracted by bird feed spilled on the ground. You have to remove bird seed and bring in hummingbird feeders at dusk. This summer is shaping up to be hot and dry with little food in the forests. The overflowing dumpsters are part of the problem. Extra days of trash pickups during the summer might help.