Backyard Bears

If you live in those wild land urban interfaces you’re going to have wildlife and if you complain about it we don’t have any choice but to do something about it.  That usually ends up with a dead animal.  Maybe not the first time, but the next time.
Rick Winslow, NM Department of Game and Fish

Bears have been walking through my backyard for decades.  They were here long before I arrived and have likely been making adjustments to their peregrinations ever since the first folks showed up here sixty or more years ago:  cutting down trees, putting up small block houses, planting roses and apricot trees.

My House 1995.

My House, 1995.

For a long time I didn’t realize they were passing through—it took two mangled suet bird feeders to convince me.  The bears are discreet, keep their distance, cruise by looking for a tasty, no-hassle meal:  a feeder filled with sunflower seeds, a bowl of kibble intended for the cat, a half-eaten pizza tossed in the trash.  Once I discovered their presence, I took away all enticements that were within my control.

Other things are more difficult.  Acorns, apples, piñon nuts.  The last one I didn’t realize was an attraction until a couple of weeks ago when I found a pile of scat a few feet away from the house in a little clearing surrounded by pine trees.  The scat was dried out and full of small brown shells.

I reached Winslow, the game department’s bear and cougar biologist, by telephone and assured him I wasn’t complaining, just had a few questions.

He told me that bears do eat piñon nuts and the scat I found was probably from last year, although it’s hard to say for certain since local trees produced the tasty nuts both this year and last. With all of the rain we had over the summer, there’s also plenty of natural food up on the mountain and not many bear sightings have been reported, another reason to think that the calling card I found was left months ago.

Over the summer we made changes in the backyard:  walls, stairs, and a gate, but I have no doubt our local bears know exactly how to get to the old apple tree, near the original house.  It was probably planted fifty years ago and has been left untended, but is loaded with an abundance of small pinkish-yellow fruit this fall, a bumper crop.  I picked as many as I could reach yesterday and am hoping the bears are satisfied with the bounty in the forest and don’t discover my apples before they go into hibernation for the winter.

Appointment with a Wolf

F638 or Jasmine as she is known at the Albuquerque BioPark lives ‘off exhibit’ and is not visible to the public so it took a special request to see her.

Jasmine in her living area. Photo courtesy of Albuquerque BioPark

Jasmine in her living area.
Photo courtesy of Albuquerque BioPark

But before I get ahead of myself. . .

Back in 2013 I wrote my first post for this blog about a family of endangered Mexican gray wolves called the Bluestem Pack.  By then they had lived in the wild for eleven years.  They were on their second alpha female and third or fourth alpha male and had raised lots of pups that went on to find mates and establish new packs. To this day the Bluestem Pack still runs in the White Mountains of Arizona.

The original members of the Bluestem Pack were born in captivity.  The near-famous (at least in wolf circles) F521, the alpha female of the pack, was born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs in the late 90s. In 2002 she and her mate along with seven of their offspring—five new pups and two juveniles–were released in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  The juveniles were born into F521’s first litter of four pups in 2000 (at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility), but only two of them were released with the family.  One of those wolves not released was F638.

It was a hot August afternoon. The zoo was quiet, the kids back in school. I arrived early so I could visit the public wolf exhibit before my meeting with the zoo manager.  The Albuquerque BioPark or Rio Grande Zoo as it used to be known has participated in the species recovery plan for more than thirty years.  Sixty-nine wolf pups were born at the zoo, helping reestablish the nearly extinct population of lobos native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  But it has been almost ten years since the zoo had a new litter of pups.

That could change next spring. The zoo has two new residents, Kawi a two-year-old female and Apache a five-year-old male.  Their enclosure, visible from above, is large with pine and cottonwood trees, boulders and logs, wild grasses.  It can be hard to spot them, but on this day the two were chasing each other around the perimeter with Kawi pausing for a brief belly flop in the horse trough.

Back at the zoo’s administrative office I met Lynn Tupa, the zoo manager, and we returned to the wolf exhibit, this time walking on the backside of the animal exhibits—even quieter than the front of the zoo.

Lynn unlocked the gate to access the wolf habitat, a secured area with access to the public exhibit and two other, smaller naturalized habitats.  The wolves have minimal exposure to humans, so they are wary, but Lynn had told me Jasmine is curious and she approached the chain link fence, stopping a few feet back, when she heard us.  Long legs, big paws, a multi-colored and grizzled coat, inquisitive eyes—a rare up-close look at a lobo.

Jasmine is sixteen years old—ancient in wolf years—and will live out her life here. She was never released in the wild, but did have one litter of pups in 2006, her contribution to the survival of endangered lobos.  She is past the age of breeding and lives with a much younger male wolf. They keep each other company.

Within moments my visit was over.

I thought about Jasmine and Kawi and Apache as I drove away.  Jasmine’s family has contributed much to the growth of the small wild population, but too many of the lobos running in their native habitat are now related to the Bluestem Pack.  New blood is badly needed if they are going to continue to survive and thrive.

That’s where Kawi and Apache come in.  Winter is mating season and if all goes well they may have a litter of pups in late April—a new wolf family with the potential to run free in the pine forests and grassy meadows of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, back where they belong.

Note:  Many thanks to Lynn Tupa at Albuquerque BioPark for providing access and answering my questions.  Also thank you to Peter Siminski, the official studbook keeper for the Mexican wolf recovery project, for filling in the blanks about F638’s history.

For more information about the current status of the wild population of Mexican gray wolves check out these two recent articles:  Cornered by Elizabeth Miller in the Santa Fe Reporter (June 15-21, 2016) and Line of Descent by Cally Carswell in High Country News (August 8, 2016).


Autumn and the Brown Bears of Katmai National Park

Hello, Autumn!  The days are getting noticeably shorter and I swear the leaves on the trees next to the Santa Fe River turned yellow overnight.

Photo Credit: Max Goldberg via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Max Goldberg via Compfight cc

The last few weeks I have been watching grizzlies grab sockeye and silver salmon out of the river at Brooks Falls in Alaska.  They are preparing for the coming winter, packing on the pounds. The park’s website says the best month for bear watching via the live feed is July, but I’ve seen lots of action in September.  Most evenings (I usually tune in while I’m fixing dinner) I see three to four bears at the base of the falls employing their different fishing techniques:  dashing and grabbing; sitting and waiting; snorkeling; pirating (stealing another bear’s catch).

It didn’t take me long to identify a favorite—bear 480, also known as Otis.  I swear Otis is the size of a mini-Cooper.  He patiently stares into the rushing water, employing the sit and wait strategy.  I learned more about Otis listening to one of the play-by-play segments by Ranger Dave.  Most of the other bears look the same to me (Ranger Dave talks about identifying them by their size and behavior and once in a while you see a mother with her cubs), but Otis is unmistakable.  His fur is blonder than the others and he has a floppy right ear.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem that Otis is very successful, but his size and an anecdote related by Ranger Dave tell a different story.  He and another ranger once watched Otis, over the course of seven hours, snag and snarf 44 salmon.    One salmon, according to the ranger, equals nine cheeseburgers.  I’ll let you do the math.

I just checked; Otis is out there tonight on the far side of the Brooks River, fishing.  But I know that one day soon he will lumber off and find a spot to hunker down for a big sleep.  I’ll miss him.

Note:  I tried, but was never able to get a decent screen shot of Otis to include with this post.





Green Chile and the End of Summer

Whether you are Hispanic or Indian or Anglo, the land belonged to the corn and chile before it belonged to you.
—Huntley Dent in The Feast of Santa Fe

Roasting chile. Photo by Paula Nixon

Roasting chile.
Photo by Paula Nixon

Vendors have staked their claims in parking lots along Cerrillos Road. Their pickup trucks are filled with burlap bags stuffed with freshly-picked green chile hauled up I-25 from Hatch and Socorro.  They appear in Santa Fe every year in the final weeks of summer, gas-fired roasting cages primed and ready to blister batches of chile on demand.

I bought a bushel of Hatch, medium hot, from Octavio in front of Jackalope.  We’ll eat it through the fall and winter in the traditional ways, but will also use it to add pizzazz to a pot of corn chowder or to gussy up a cheeseburger.   I’m hoping I stashed enough of the little baggies in the freezer to carry us through until the next harvest makes its way north.

A few years ago I had lunch at the San Marcos Café and Feed Store on the Turquoise Trail—a burrito topped with a simple, but divine green chile sauce.  Back in my kitchen I tinkered until I came up with the recipe below that comes close to theirs.  With a little adaptation it also works with dried red chiles.

Quick and Easy Green Chile Sauce

1 tablespoon oil (I use canola)
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups water or chicken stock
2-3 green chiles, roasted, peeled, and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan.  Add flour and brown, whisking constantly.  Add water or broth, chile, garlic, and salt.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for twenty minutes, or until sauce thickens, stirring frequently.

Delicious on enchiladas, chalupas, huevos rancheros. Buen Provecho!

One Endangered Bird, Too Many Deer, and a Hungry Bear

I’m always on the lookout for wildlife stories and one good source is the “State-by-State” section of the USA Today, which I see a couple of times a month when I’m traveling.  The micro-stories cover all topics, but it’s a rare day that I don’t find at least one good animal story.

Here are the best ones I found last week, ranging from Hawaii to New Hampshire.

Hilo, Hawaii:  A dozen birds native to Hawaii will be released in November to end over a decade of extinction in the wild for the species.  The corvid is part of the crow family and will be reintroduced at a natural area reserve aviary, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported. 8/30/16

The ‘alala or Hawaiian crow is threatened by a long list of things including habitat loss, feral animals, and overgrazing cattle according to my Audubon guide.  After the initial release, more will be scheduled in the coming years.  It’s a collaborative effort between the state, US Fish and Wildlife, and the San Diego Zoo.  Teaching the chicks to hide from predators in the forest is one of the methods they are employing to increase the crows’ odds of survival in the wild.  Here’s hoping the reintroduction is successful!

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

Prineville, Oregon:  Residents are using streamers, balloons, pinwheels and CDs hanging from trees to scare off the city’s abundant deer, officials said. 8/31/16

Augusta, Maine:  The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife  approved an increase in “any deer” hunting permits.  There will be more than 45,000 permits issued this year. 8/31/16

Different responses to the same problem—too many deer.   In Prineville citizens are not in agreement about the deer population that hangs out in their town.  Some like the hooved visitors; others are decorating their yards in an effort to scare them away.  The city council opted not to fine those who feed them, but do strongly advise against it.

In Maine more hunting permits will be issued this fall after last year’s mild winter led to more deer surviving.  Hunters can shoot “any deer”— males or females.

Goffstown, New Hampshire:  A man said he spotted a hungry black bear trying to run off with his bird feeder outside his home, WMUR-TV reported.  The animal dropped the feeder but later snacked on some seeds in Jason Alexander’s driveway. 8/31/16

Bear stories are my favorite and this one comes complete with a video.  I hope that Mr. Alexander puts his bird seed away until the hungry bears return to the mountains for the winter.


The Hollywood Mountain Lion

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

On Monday last week I took a short walk on Hollywood Boulevard.  It was clear and hot and the only sign of wildlife was a pigeon pecking in a patch of scrubby dirt.   I glanced down at the stars lining the sidewalk, but was distracted by the hills visible to the north beyond Highway 101.  Somewhere up there, less than five miles from the Starbucks where I stopped for an iced coffee and a reprieve from the blazing sun, lives P-22.

His story is amazing, a mountain lion crossing two major freeways to travel from the Santa Monica Mountains into Griffith Park, a 4000-acre park in the heart of Los Angeles.  It’s a feat that’s hard to fathom especially if you have ever driven through the city—it doesn’t matter what time of day or night, the roads are filled with delivery trucks, semis, school buses, and cars, hundreds of thousands of them.

But somehow P-22 managed it and took up residence in the hills above the city where he found abundant deer and no competition from other mountain lions.

Miguel Ordeñana, a wildlife biologist, recounts the thrill of finally verifying the existence of the then-unidentified lion in 2012 after numerous ‘unconfirmed sightings.’   “An LA Story” is featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Earth Island Journal.  Once P-22 was captured, collared, and released back in the park he became even more of a celebrity, seldom seen, but living large in the imaginations of millions in LA and beyond, spurring talk of a wildlife bridge over Highway 101.

I have followed P-22’s tale for the past couple of years via National Geographic’s Instagram feed and was captivated by Steve Winter’s photo of him in front of the lighted Hollywood sign at night.  It wasn’t an easy shot to get—lots of time and patience—he shares the details here.

In the new book When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors:  People and wildlife working it out in California Beth Pratt-Bergstrom also relates P-22’s story along with her guess as to  how he got across all those lanes of traffic, “He probably did what most of us do when confronted with the Los Angeles freeways:  floor it and hope for the best.”

Pratt-Bergstrom compares P-22’s journey to that of astronaut Neil Armstrong.  Funny, but that’s the only plaque (a circle instead of the usual star) that caused me to pause on my walk.  It’s at Hollywood and Vine and honors the Apollo 11 crew, the first to walk on the moon.





One Day, Three Rangers

Happy Birthday to the National Park Service!

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

Glacier National Park
June 2013
Ranger Brian pulled a grizzly claw out of his jacket pocket and explained that the bears were making a slow comeback, in part because the females only have cubs once every three years.  The small crowd, sitting on hard benches in the Discovery Cabin, listened attentively.  The perimeter of the rustic room was lined with shelves filled with animal pelts, skulls,  teeth—the props Brian used as he described the diverse animal population in Glacier National Park.  A couple of kids in the audience jumped up when he asked for volunteers, eager to assist in his demonstration of the difference between antlers and horns.

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

There are lots of ways to explore Glacier but on this cool, rainy June day Dave and I opted to stay close to the lodge.  Ours was going to be a very short visit after a very long trip—a late night flight into Idaho Falls two days earlier and then a 400-mile drive through Montana with stops along the way to look at construction projects. It was a mini-vacation at the end of our work week—the opportunity we had been looking for to get back to a favorite national park.

We decided the best way to make the most of our one full day in the park was to go to as many ranger programs as we could squeeze in.  We started with the Amazing Animals talk in Agpar Village and after Brian finished answering questions, he stepped outside to identify an unfamiliar pine tree for me.

Back at the lodge we hustled out to the dock for a cruise on the DeSmet.  Ranger Doug was waiting, microphone in hand, when we boarded.  Rain threatened our tour of Lake McDonald, but a little foul weather wasn’t going to deter the veteran ranger.  With more than fifty years of service in Glacier, he had lived through more than a few fires and floods and had tales to tell.

DroidRazr 2013 thru 2014 034

Bear Grass. Photo by Paula Nixon

As we motored around the lake, he stressed the importance of water, fire, and ice in the ongoing evolution of the park.  Doug spent years hiking on the glaciers and remembers when the ice first began to recede.  Thinking it was only temporary, he found it hard to believe when he realized it wasn’t returning (the current estimate is that glaciers in the park will disappear by 2030).  Before we disembarked, Doug left us with a piece of advice, “Next time you get on a boat make sure there’s not a ranger on it with a big hat and a mouth to match.”

At dusk we parked and walked to Fish Creek amphitheater for our final event.  I regretted my forgotten umbrella,  but the shower was short-lived and Ranger Sarah’s enthusiasm was contagious.  She had just finished college with a degree in chemistry and this was her first summer as a ranger. She focused on the diversity present in the park starting at the lowest level—diatoms and moved up to insects.  They’re not nearly as engaging as a mountain goat or a gray wolf, but by the time she was finished we were all rooting for the survival of the western glacier stonefly, a tiny creature found only in the park whose existence is threatened by the shrinking ice.

Back at the lodge I had a buffalo burger and a beer and scribbled all I could remember from the ranger talks in my notebook before I fell asleep.

Three years have passed since that day spent at Glacier but the memories stay with me:  bunches of fluffy white bear grass in the forest; a sunbeam breaking through the clouds and lighting up the lake;  three foxes with white-tipped tails next to the trail, as curious about us as we were about them.

To Rangers Brian, Doug, and Sarah I thank you for your passion, wit, and generosity!


A Trip to New Mexico’s Wolf Country

Photo by: Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

On a Saturday morning in early July Dave and I drove north out of Silver City on Highway 15.  I turned off my cellphone and unfolded a large US Forest Service (USFS) topographic map.  We rolled down the windows and savored the slow pace—it would take almost two hours to drive the winding 45 miles to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Although it was my first trip to the Gila National Forest my map was worn, marked with a highlighter—past locations of Mexican gray wolves, gleaned from telemetry reports.

Ours was a short trip, just a day, with a couple of hours for hiking.  I had no thought of seeing or hearing any sign of the small population of wolves that run in the Gila.  That would take a longer visit:  getting further out into the wilderness, camping for a night or two, being still.

It was enough to enjoy a summer day in the forest:  the scent of pines with a hint of rain in the air, the almost-forgotten sound of quiet, three mule deer drinking at a stream, and delicate white prickly poppies fluttering in the breeze by the side of the road. 

We stopped at the visitor center where I asked a National Park Service (NPS) volunteer about wolf sightings in the area but the answer was no, none recently.

Another mile and the road ran out at the base of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  As we parked and got ready to hike up to the caves I thought about the Coronado Pack.

Coronado Pack being transferred by mule into the Gila Wilderness Photo Courtesy of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

Coronado Pack being transferred by mule into the Gila Wilderness
Photo Courtesy of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

Almost exactly two years before my visit the family of six Mexican wolves, an alpha pair and their four pups, had been released deep in the wilderness, about 20 miles east of here, at a place called McKenna Park.  The adult wolves had traveled long circuitous routes to get to this point and this would be their last, best chance to live in the wild.  The most recent leg of their journey had started at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, a pre-release site for Mexican wolves, 200 miles northeast.  Transported by truck they had stopped for the night somewhere near where I was now standing.  The next morning the wolves were loaded on the backs of mules in preparation to travel the last few miles of their trip.

We hiked up to the caves stopping to talk with NPS volunteers who filled us in on the Mogollon people who had  called these caves home for a short time in the late 13th century.  We studied the stone walls and fire rings and listened to theories about where the Mogollon had come from and why they left.  I imagined them returning to this safe place at the end of each day, gathering around a fire as the sun set.  I wondered if they had heard the howls of the Coronado Pack’s ancestors.

Back in the parking lot after our hike we watched a NPS employee holler and toss small stones at a squirrel intent on running up a steep, rocky hill with a Styrofoam cup in his mouth.  He finally heeded her demands and paused for a moment, dropped his treasure, and scampered out of sight leaving the piece of trash stranded and inaccessible.  As we drove away an enterprising hiker was attempting to scramble up the rock face to retrieve it.

The Gila Wilderness seems huge at over half a million acres,  but seeing caves that had been inhabited more than 700 years ago was a reminder that life here had, for a very long time, been a balancing act between the needs and desires of humans and those of the creatures with whom they shared the forest.

The Coronado Pack did not survive.  Even in this vast wilderness they ran into conflicts with people and their domesticated animals.  The alpha female was found dead* within six months of their release and the rest of her pack scattered.

*According to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program:  Progress Report #17 the alpha female of the Coronado Pack, AF1126, “was located on mortality” on December 22, 2014.  To date I have not been able to get any further details about her death. 

Summer Vacation

For most of us the childhood dream of  ‘summer vacation’ is probably more ideal than  reality.  A few days off to explore–the mountains, the beach, a national park, maybe even a trip out of the country–then it’s back to the routine.

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas I waited all year for that week or two. For my family that often meant a trip to Colorado or New Mexico.  In 1966, before we started camping, we stayed at a rustic cabin in Decker’s Corner in the Pike National Forest not too far from Denver.
Decker's Corners, 1966. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Decker’s Corners, 1966. Photo by: Paula Nixon

I was eight and taking my first pictures with an old Brownie camera given to me by my Uncle Douglas. For this post I considered cropping the trash can and Coors box out of the photo, but decided it was part of the memory–the trip wasn’t a perfect one.  We arrived just in time for the fourth of July and the locals celebrated not only with fireworks, but also by firing their shotguns into the air, making my parents uneasy.

Twenty or so years later Dave and I took another trip to Decker’s.  We were living less than forty miles away and it was an easy place to get to for an overnight camping trip.  We took off late on a Saturday afternoon, somehow managing to forget our tent poles.  We gamely rolled out our sleeping bags on top of the flat tent, but didn’t last the night fearing we were too close to a dirt bike trail head.  We woke the next morning in our own bed. I haven’t been back to Decker’s since.

This summer, instead of one long vacation, we have taken a couple of short trips to new locales: a weekend in Silver City and the Gila Wilderness and a jaunt along a short stretch of the Oregon Coast.  It’s always an adventure to see how unknown places square with our ideas of them once we finally get to visit.

Otherwise, it’s been a summer of rediscovering old favorites:  a trip to the Albuquerque BioPark to see a new pair of Mexican wolves, Kawi and Apache, and weekly visits to the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market where tomatoes and corn have finally arrived.

Although the end is in sight, there’s still lots of summer left to enjoy.

Early this morning I got up to watch the Perseid meteor shower, one of my August favorites.  Twenty or thirty streaking stars later, I went back to bed thinking that I should go outside more often in the middle of the night to enjoy the dark skies, cool air, and quiet.

I may be groggy all day, but it’s worth it to squeeze every last bit of summer out of the season!

Mexican Wolf News – June 2016

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Many of us in New Mexico, Arizona, and points beyond were waiting last week to hear what a U.S. District Judge in Las Cruces was going to say about wolf introductions (releases) in New Mexico.

For a a quick recap of how we got to this point, this article about a 100 year old Mexican wolf pelt that was returned to New Mexico last year tells a bit about the history of the lobo (and its demise) in the Southwest and also about recent changes to the recovery effort that now calls for  introduction of the endangered wolves in New Mexico.  Up until now initial releases only occurred in Arizona with wolves being allowed to migrate across the state line into the Gila National Forest (Gila).

Objecting to the new rules, the NM Department of Game and Fish refused to issue permits to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) granting them permission to release wolves in the state.  The conflict escalated once it became known that in April FWS had placed  two captive-born pups with a pack living in the Gila without a permit. That’s when the state went to court to request a restraining order to not only halt future wolf releases, but to also remove the pups.

A few days before the judge issued a ruling, four conservation groups—Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance—filed a motion on behalf of the wolves.  In this Albuquerque Journal guest column, Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity makes the compelling argument that Mexican wolves need to be rescued from politics if they are to have a real chance at recovery.

Over the last few weeks, in newspapers around the state there have been numerous letters to the editor written in support of wolf releases in New Mexico.   Curious, I did a little more looking to see if there had been letters expressing other viewpoints.  I did not find any, although there is opposition.

On Friday, June 10th, the judge issued a 24-page opinion granting the state’s request to prohibit the release of wolves in the state without a permit. The ruling inhibits FWS’s ability to get more wolves out into the wild in an ongoing effort to improve genetic diversity.

The good news?  The wolf pups, recently placed with a wild foster pack in the GIla, will be allowed to stay.

The wolves, of course, are oblivious to the drama.   About now, the pups of the year are beginning to explore their surroundings. Over the summer they will start to travel with the pack, short trips at first until they are bigger and stronger.  And on a dark quiet night they will discover their voices, following the lead of the adults, joining in the chorus, lifting their heads in a first howl.