Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Bear of a Year

Emaciated bear cub at The Wildilfe Center, Espanola, NM

A neighbor’s compost pile dug up and trashed. Dogs barking during the night. Hummingbird feeders ripped from their hangers. Bird baths overturned. The perpetrator of the vandalism left ample evidence of his or her presence, beginning in late September. It has been several years since a black bear made itself evident in Area 3 north of Jemez Springs, not since the infamous shooting of a harmless bear by a local resident. He paraded the carcass to friends in Belen, was busted by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish when he attempted to have the animal mounted, was roundly roasted in the Thunder, and moved out of state shortly thereafter.

Although, my area of expertise is all things avian, not mammalian, it seems most appropriate to consider the plight of these omnivores during our driest year on record. I contacted Katherine Eagleson, Director of The Wildlife Center (TWC) in Espanola, New Mexico’s largest wildlife rehabilitation center and the only resource for injured, orphaned, or starving large mammals, including predatory mammals. The center has taken in 46 black bears since January 1, 2011. As of October 17, they had 33 bears on site; normal is 6-8 bears.

Wildlife Center staff working performing triage on a new arrival

According to Eagleson, drought has the greatest effect on bears as well as other wildlife. Most of a bear’s diet consists of vegetation. Soft mass (mast) includes berries, grasses and other vegetation and hard mast includes nuts, such as pinyon, and most importantly, acorns, of which there are few this year. It was so dry throughout the winter that, in the early part of this year and through early summer, even the grasses were failing in bears’ foraging areas. Females and their cubs emerged from their dens when little food was available. Females won’t abandon cubs due to food shortage, but the cubs follow their mothers and may be predated upon by other bears. Underweight youngsters are more vulnerable to predation and their biggest threat is other bears. Coyotes and mountain lions also prey upon young bears.

Then, the fires arrived, exacerbating an already tenuous existence and forcing bears from known habitat into the territories of other animals. Starving bears descended on communities statewide, looking for food. According to Eagleson, there has been no formal assessment of food sources for bears, something she would like to see developed as a citizen science project. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMGF) officers have killed over 200 bears this year, problem bears that broke into cabins, have been hit by cars or have other injuries, or have lost their fear of humans. Humans do a lot to exacerbate the problem of habituated bears by leaving out garbage, bird feeders, and feeding dogs outdoors. “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Young bear in one of the bruin holding pens at The Wildlife Center

TWC only keeps first and second year bears. Other bears, unless injured, are returned to forested areas throughout the state. Cubs normally stay with their mothers for 16-18 months before dispersing. Some female cubs even establish territories adjacent to their mothers. Young born in 2010 and 2011 would normally still be with their mothers and are not ready to be on their own.

Second year bears, those born in 2010, are fattened up as much as possible and are now being released in areas where it is hoped that they will begin hibernation soon. One such bear is the one that was found in Albuquerque near Coors Blvd. The emaciated 18 month old cub arrived at TWC weighing only 50 pounds. During its stint in captivity, it packed on another 150 pounds and became a very feisty bear that needed to be released NOW. All bears are anesthetized for release. Their release is carefully coordinated with NMGF biologists, who select sites that have low human impacts, little traffic, and that should have a food source in the spring when the bear emerges from hibernation. Release sites also have to be evaluated for carrying capacity and the number of bears already present in the area.

Cubs born in 2011 will have to remain on site throughout this winter, and will be released in the spring of 2012. Although they will be very young to be independent, only be 15 months old, TWC can’t effectively keep them over the next summer without seriously habituating them to humans.

Housing and feeding 33 bears might be considered overwhelming to some, but TWC staff seem to take it all in stride. Each bear consumes 6 - 7 pounds of dog food a day, totaling 200 pounds each and every day. That doesn’t include the apples, melons and other fruit donated by grocery stores and individuals. In New Mexico, healthy females weigh 130 – 180 pounds while males tip the scales at 250 – 300 pounds. Bears need to gain 30% of their weight before they got into hibernation. Breeding for bears occurs in June, but fertilization is delayed. If the female is underweight, the egg will not attach and no young will be born the following winter. Eagleson anticipates fairly low cub production in the spring of 2012.

Bears at TWC are held at an off-site location, and the influx of 2011 has required the construction of additional enclosures to safely house their expanded bruin population. When I wondered how one goes about cleaning an enclosure that contains large wild bears, Eagleson quickly responded, “Cleaning through intimidation! We use the same people all of the time. They go in and bang on the doors and yell at the bear and so on.” TWC did receive $20,000 in donated dog food, but needs cash donations to help pay for new enclosures and also pay trained staff to clean the enclosures and care for bears.

It’s an admirable job, and one that I am glad doesn’t belong to me. TWC is always looking for new volunteers. They hold periodic training classes throughout the year. But mostly, they could use cash donations! You can donate online Please contact TWC center for more information if you are interested in becoming a TWC volunteer.

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