The brown mound of fur looks more like big, drowsy dog than a 200-pound black bear when New Mexico Game and Fish conservation officer Matt Pengelly opens the door of his trailer so the woman just behind him can peer in for a look.
Like a lot of curious spectators, this woman hailed Pengelly down on his way from Taos Ski Valley for a chance to look at the bear and Pengelly is happy to oblige with the bear tranquilized.
The bear snorts suddenly and the woman takes a step back, pressing the mail she is carrying closer to her chest.
“He’s harmless,” Pengelly assures her.
“Ja,” the woman says in a thick German accent, laughing nervously.
Pengelly is having another busy week in the worst bear-kill season on record for New Mexico.
As of Oct. 3, Game and Fish reported that a total of 638 bears had been killed in the state this year — 226 of those by game and fish officers. The past two seasons saw totals of 427 and 409, and department kills were well south of 100.
According to Game and Fish bear biologist Rick Winslow, there are a number of reasons officers have had to put so many bears down.
“Bears that are habituated to human food will continue to come into town regardless of natural conditions such as drought,” Winslow said in an email. “We also have a large bear population at the moment due to conservative harvest strategies and good environmental conditions leading to good breeding success for the last six years.”
This bear, a young male, has been sniffing around Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina at Taos Ski Valley for about a month. Finally, bartender Justin Janowick caught the bear in the cantina’s crawl-space storage area beneath the building, where the bear had torn the top off a metal chest freezer and ripped a solid-core door in half.
“Actually, I didn’t catch him, he caught me,” Janowick says at the cantina Friday (Sept. 30). “I’m on the fence about what to do about bears. On the one hand, they’re a nuisance when there’s no food, but hearing him yowling in that cage you know he’s just trying to survive. In that way, I guess we’re all in the same boat.”
Before he tranquilizes the bear to tag it, Pengelly has to “treat” the bear with paintballs and pepper spray. The goal is basically to terrorize the bear enough so that it doesn’t come back. At first, the bear tries to dodge Pengelly’s close-range fire until it gets angry enough to reach through the bars and take a few razor-ended swipes at Pengelly as some inquisitive condo tenants watch from their balconies.
Back in town, Pengelly makes a pit stop to hydrate the bear and hose him down, as tranquilized bears run a risk of dehydration. It’s a lot of effort and care even though Pengelly knows the odds are stacked against this bear’s survival.
“There’s not enough fat on his body,” Pengelly says. “This time of year, a bear his size should have a lot more weight on him.”
Although Winslow says bears can avoid hibernation in order to keep foraging through the winter, low body weight is still a bad sign. Relocation, too, could be a death sentence for this bear. Even without drought conditions, it takes bears time to acclimate to the new surroundings and locate food and water. Relocated bears will also likely have to fight other established bears for a piece of territory.
And if this bear is too accustomed to human food and trash, it could already be over.
“Most bears that we relocate are already habituated and we eventually end up euthanizing them,” Winslow confirms. “Most relocations are eventually unsuccessful.”
Facts like these have made this season more difficult than most on officers like Pengelly who became game wardens out of a love of wildlife.
This past August, Pengelly responded to a call of a bear and her cub that were spotted by a wedding party at El Monte Sagrado Resort. The mainstream media glazed over the story as comedy relief and masking a reality Pengelly deals with daily: The majority of these bears come to town for one main reason — they’re desperate for food.
The cub involved in the El Monte incident escaped and was never found; it was likely too young to survive on its own. The mother stayed in Pengelly’s custody for a few days in the hopes the cub would turn up, but eventually he had to relocate and release her on her own.
Just recently (Sept. 27), Pengelly was forced to put a bear down after it fell roughly 80 feet from a tree on Dolan Street, breaking its leg.
These aren’t good days at the office for Pengelly.
“It’s always a shame. I was upset,” Pengelly says of that day. “My job is to protect wildlife, so any day I have to put an animal down it’s a bad day.”
Following the incident on Dolan street, The Taos News received several calls alleging that Game and Fish acted inhumanely toward the bear when Pengelly tried to get the animal out of the tree with rubber pellets issued to officers.
Pengelly takes such criticism in stride.
“There are both sides of the coin. You get people like that and I also get the people who want me to kill every single bear in town,” Pengelly says. “But sometimes protecting animals means protecting them from suffering.”
Pengelly strives to find the most remote location ideal for releasing his bears, usually somewhere in the Las Cruces Basin Wilderness Area, west of Tres Piedras. On a given week this season, he could make the trip several times. Even though relocation doesn’t always work, Pengelly says there aren’t many alternatives in the bears’ best interests.
“This is their best shot to survive,” Pengelly says.
The bear is wide awake and plenty annoyed when Pengelly opens the trailer door. He breaks into a run at the sound of Pengelly’s shotgun full of rubber buckshot and tears toward the tree-dotted horizon as the cries of his protectors fade behind him.