Bears live large in the imagination. After I caught a black bear on my wildlife camera trap late last summer (and two more times after that) I continued to think about him–long after he had lumbered back up the mountain to take an extended nap.
To try and understand more about my ursine neighbors, I read a couple of bear books over the winter while they were hibernating.
The Grizzly Maze written by Nick Jans tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, the self-styled bear researcher/advocate who was killed by a grizzly in Alaska after he had spent years living among the 500 pound creatures, naming and filming them. For an up close look at the bears, Treadwell, and the Katmai Coast the documentary, Grizzly Man, can’t be beat, but Jans’ book gave me a more in-depth understanding of the bears and Treadwell’s complicated relationship with them.
We no longer have grizzlies in New Mexico–the last known one was killed in 1931, but in his afterward, “The Beast of Nightmare,” Jans analyzes human and bear (grizzly, black, and polar) interactions, in an attempt to answer two questions: How dangerous are bears and what can be done to keep bears and people more safe?
Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition is author Benjamin Kilham’s firsthand account of his experiences with black bears in New Hampshire. In this video, a portion of a National Geographic film about Kilham, he discusses his unconventional methods of raising cubs and reintroducing the young bears to the woods. His book closes with an appendix entitled, “The Human-Bear Conflict: How to understand black bear behavior and avoid problems.”
In both books the authors cite Dr. Stephen Herrero’s extensive research on bear attacks on humans in North America dating back to 1900. Kilham’s book, the more recently published of the two, has the most up-to-date data. It turns out that in spite of our worst fears bears rarely attack or kill humans,especially black bears. Jans points to the fact that black bears (Ursa americanus) evolved as “creatures of the forest and shadow, who developed retreat as a response to threat.” Given the opportunity they will usually try to avoid an encounter with a human. Jan’s sums it up with this: “Bears can count and bears don’t like surprises.” He advises, when possible, to hike and camp in groups and to make noise.
Kilham echos that advice and writes at length about the dominant drive in a bear’s life to eat. He stresses that we are asking for trouble when we leave food in our backyards–bird seed and pet food have unusually high caloric content and are irresistible to bears. Kilham (and every other bear expert) advise, “stop inviting bears to dinner,” and goes on to say that whether it’s on purpose or not, feeding a bear is like “entering into a social contract with them . . . they expect the food to keep coming . . .”
Last summer and fall we had a busier than usual bear season in Santa Fe. In September animal control estimated that ten different bears had been sighted in the city over a two-week period. At one point the police department issued an alert after three bears were seen “roaming the streets”–a mother and her cub were spotted near a high school and a single large bear was seen in another busy part of town. Both incidents passed without any harm coming to humans. “Black bears in most situations seem to go out of their collective way to take it easy on us . . . , ” says Jans.
Here in New Mexico it’s estimated that we have 6000 to 7000 bears, but that number may be low according to Rick Winslow, a cougar and bear biologist with the Department of Game and Fish. Our local bears eat dandelion greens, new grass, and insects in the spring. As the summer progresses they forage for acorns, juniper berries, and fruit. When I talked to Winslow a few weeks ago he said it looked like the food supply was good on his last trip into the mountains. So, if they have enough to eat why do the bears come into the city? The answer is complex.
Even with recent rains we are still in a drought. Some patches of food may become depleted and the bears may have to travel farther to find water. But the biggest reason of all may be that they have become habituated. Winslow says that even in the most remote corner of our wilderness in New Mexico bears know about human food.
It makes me want to go door-to-door and tell my neighbors: Pick those peaches before they get too ripe and fall on the ground; put Fluffy and her kibble inside for the night; and, for heaven’s sake, lock that pepperoni pizza box in the garage until trash day.
In early June when I spoke to Winslow he had already gotten a bear call, a mother with two cubs on Bishop’s Lodge Road. They were relocated to the Jemez Mountains where, it is hoped, they will stay. In the end it is the bears who face a bigger risk in their encounters with humans. The NM Department of Game and Fish and homeowners killed 173 bears in 2013. Most of them had been in trouble before, trolling campsites or trash dumpsters for food.
It’s still early in the season and so far I haven’t seen any evidence of bears passing through my yard. Later today I’ll set up my wildlife camera, but before I walk through the trees to the back fence I’ll pick up two rocks and bang them together. That noise supposedly sounds like a bear popping his jaws, his way of letting others know where he is. It’s unlikely I’ll see a bear but if I do I’ll remind myself (calmly) to stand tall; talk softly, but firmly; and back away slowly.