New Mexico Game, Fish says increase in bear complaints normal

Sep. 25—Months after monsoon rains began to douse the last embers of the worst wildfire season in New Mexico's recorded history, life is returning to charred forests.

Some residents who have encountered wildlife, including bears, have expressed concerns about whether increased habitat loss from the massive fires, as well as prolonged drought and an ongoing trend of development encroaching on forest lands, would send more bears into streets and neighborhoods as they forage for food ahead of winter. That is especially true of bears displaced by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire that destroyed more than 340,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains this year.

Wildlife experts say they don't expect to see a rise in bear encounters.

Kathleen Ramsay, a veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator who started the Land of Enchantment Wildlife Foundation in Española, said the state's bear population is thriving despite the fires.

"The rains came at a really good time to increase our acorn crop, and that is the most important food base available for bears by far," Ramsay said. "If we do not get a good volume of acorns in the higher country, that is when we see the bears starting to move to other areas."

Ramsay said without the rain, the situation would have been dire.

The Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 was devastating for bears, she said, with 56 cubs sent to rehabilitation. This year there have only been three, which she is helping to care for.

"Part of the escapade of that one," Ramsay said of the Cerro Grande Fire, "was not only did we hit the fire, but then we went into a drought pattern ... so we saw huge amounts of animals just not doing well."

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish spokesman Ryan Darr said the agency has seen an increase in complaints about bears, particularly near the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar. But calls have been within the normal range.

Wildlife displaced by fire generally will move back to the area when it's safe, he said, but might forage across a larger territory.

"Bear sightings and complaints typically increase [in] late summer and early fall as bears are moving around foraging for the best food sources prior to winter hibernation," Darr wrote in an email.

Bears can pose dangers when they wander into communities, such as a juvenile black bear recently discovered in a neighborhood just south of Santa Fe's midtown area, which was released back into the wild.

"The bear was doing OK, but it just had picked a very poor area to stay as it started working on fattening up," Ramsay said.

Bears found in cities usually get a chance to return to their natural habitat, but those that keep returning often are deemed "nuisances" and euthanized.

According to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 19 nuisance bears have been euthanized this year in a zone that includes Mora and part of Las Vegas, N.M., areas hit hard by wildfire. A zone that stretches from Moriarty to the Texas border had the second-highest number of bears killed at 12. New Mexico has 14 bear management zones, most of which have seen fewer than five kills.

Nick Forman, the carnivore and small mammal program manager for the Department of Game and Fish, said the number of nuisance bears euthanized in the fire area is similar to those in previous years. In 2020, there were 20 bears killed in the area, and in 2021 there were 21, he said.

"This zone has a lot of high-quality bear habitat and a robust bear population," Forman wrote in an email. "It is hard to correlate the number of bear depredation mortalities with specific environmental or population causes. However, a number of factors can influence how many bear complaints we receive in a year, including: drought, a growing bear population, or people being irresponsible and leaving attractants that bring bears in closer proximity to humans."

Ramsay said food is the main reason bears approach people.

"Bears have to eat 10,000 calories a day and they don't care where they find them," Ramsay said.

She said the smell of fruit trees, honey in beehives and trash can attract bears, leading to encounters with humans.

Oftentimes, people encounter bears while wandering into their territory.

Paul Georgoulis of Texas was bitten by a black bear last month while he was camping in Glorieta, which left him with 16 stitches on his head. Georgoulis said at the time he believed the bear was attracted to the smell of his shampoo or toothpaste.

Santa Fe native Tania Pacheco stumbled upon a bear cub rolling in the grass while she was hiking with her husband Sept. 4 in the Valles Caldera National Preserve; just out of sight was a mother that was not too pleased to see them.

"The baby was about 75 yards from us. ... The mama would huff, huff, huff then roar," Pacheco said. "It was so loud it would rattle your whole body. We were trying to be really cautious not to run into the mama or spook the baby."

She added, "We left and went to the other side of the mountain. We had bear spray on us, but I don't ever want to come face to face with a bear, much less two bears."