With drought conditions in Taos County — and roughly the western half of New Mexico — alleviated by an above-average snowpack and unusual spring rains, humans may be less likely to encounter black bears as they emerge from hibernation, according to wildlife officials, who are nonetheless urging residents and visitors to be "bear aware."
In years when there is good moisture and where natural food sources are abundant, human-bear conflicts and interactions are down, according to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife press release. Over 90 percent of a bear’s natural diet consists of native forage like grasses, berries, fruits, nuts and plants, which are dependent on moisture. Wildlife officials monitor weather patterns in the spring and summer to help determine what natural forage will be available in the summer and fall.
Though most human-bear interactions occur in the late summer and fall months, a late frost or prolonged dry weather could still lead to localized natural food failures and a rise in human-bear conflicts. A lack of natural food availability pushes black bears to be more persistent in their search for human food sources.
According to a 2001 Game and Fish study, the average black bear in New Mexico enters hibernation in October or November, and exits its den sometime between April 9 and May 10, hibernating for up to seven months. Den entrance and exit times vary greatly depending on the animal's sex, with male bears venturing out to forage as early as late-March.
Being bear aware not only protects your home and property, the Parks and Wildlife release said, but it can save a bear’s life.
“Every time a bear gets a treat — a bird feeder, a hummingbird feeder, or trash — it teaches the bear that people mean food,” said Matt Yamashita, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area 8 west of Denver, which covers Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Eagle and Pitkin counties. “People who think that it’s one time, no big deal, are totally wrong. It is a big deal when you compound that ‘one time’ with how many ‘one-timers’ they get from your neighbors, too. It adds up.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has already received 173 reports of bear activity in 25 Colorado counties this year.
"Reporting person had trash can full of dog food on back porch, looked out back window and saw a medium size cinnamon bear," one report from Trinidad, Colorado stated. "Reporting person states that she chased the bear through the yard while throwing firecrackers at it to scare it off."
Another person who filed a report with Colorado Parks and Wildlife from Steamboat Springs wondered "if it is time to get rubber shotgun shells if they visit again — I do have [a] 12 gauge shotgun."
Instead, wildlife officials are urging residents to secure all potential attractants, such as from trash receptacles, bird feeders or other human-provided food sources around homes or businesses. Practicing proper bear-aware precautions in the spring may help prevent bears from discovering your home or neighborhood as a food source that the animals will return to throughout the year.
“Over the past several years, Area 8 in particular has seen a high number of bears inhabiting municipalities across both valleys and a subsequently high number of human-black bear conflicts," Yamashita said. "Even with a lack of natural food sources, bears continue to have large litter sizes of three to four cubs, indicating they are receiving supplemental food from humans.”
While the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish doesn't track reports of bear activity, the Carson National Forest is known to be among the most highly-populated areas for black bear in the state, according to the Forest Service. There are an estimated 5,000-6,000 black bears in New Mexico.
Early season natural food sources for bears include grasses, aspen buds and other vegetative matter that is beginning to sprout. Those gentle food sources, which are the first crops available to them, help a bear’s digestive system and metabolism adjust back to normal after not consuming anything for months.
“Their bodies are needing to adjust to the fact that they haven’t consumed anything for sometimes six months,” said Mark Vieira, Carnivore and Furbearer Program Manager for CPW. “So there is this phase that is referred to sometimes as walking hibernation, where they are out on the landscape moving slowly and eating what tends to be more vegetative material that starts to pass through their system to get their bodies ready for early summer food sources. That is when they will move back into the typical omnivore diet that we see bears eating the rest of the year.”
The following lists provide advice from experts about how to be bear aware.
• Keep garbage in a well-secured location, and only put out garbage on the morning of pickup.
• Clean garbage cans regularly to keep them free of food odors: Ammonia is effective.
• Keep garage doors closed. Do not leave pet food or stock feed outside.
• Use a bear-resistant trash can or dumpster.
• Bird feeders are a major source of bear/human conflicts. Attract birds naturally with flowers and water baths. Do not hang bird feeders from April 15 to Nov. 15.
• Don’t allow bears to become comfortable around your house. If you see one, haze it by yelling at it, throwing things at it and making loud noises to scare it off.
• Secure compost piles. Bears are attracted to the scent of rotting food.
• Clean the grill after each use, and clean up thoroughly after cookouts.
• If you have fruit trees, don't allow the fruit to rot on the ground.
• Talk to your neighbors and kids about being bear aware.
Cars, traveling and campsites:
• Lock your doors when you’re away from home and at night.
• Keep the bottom-floor windows of your house closed when you're not at home.
• Do not keep food in your vehicle; roll up windows and lock the doors of your vehicles.
• When car camping, secure all food and coolers in a locked vehicle.
• Keep a clean camp, whether you’re in a campground or in the backcountry.
• When camping in the backcountry, hang food 100 feet or more from the campsite and don’t bring any food into your tent.
• Cook food well away from your tent; wash dishes thoroughly.
Protecting your chickens, bees and livestock:
• Keep chickens, bees and livestock in a fully covered enclosure, especially at night.
• Construct electric fencing when possible.
• Don’t store livestock feed outside.
• Keep enclosures clean to minimize animal odors.
• Hang rags soaked in ammonia and/or Pine-Sol around the enclosure as a scent deterrent.
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