It's open season on New Mexico's bears

Despite dire warnings, state maintains an extended hunting seaason

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    Diane Sylvain

CEDAR CREST, N.M. - Rising 5,000 feet above semi-arid grasslands, the tree-covered Sandia and Manzano mountains mark the eastern boundary of the Middle Rio Grande Valley in central New Mexico. During good times, these mountains, with their thick stands of acorn-producing oaks and abundant berries, can support approximately 120 black bears.

But in 2001, when drought and a late freeze decimated their natural food supply, the bears descended on garbage cans and bird feeders in nearby neighborhoods. By the end of last summer, residents filed more than 60 complaints about trespassing bears, with nearly 20 reported sightings per day. In response, the politically appointed state Game Commission added a full month to the 45-day fall bear-hunting season. Fewer bears, they reasoned, would mean less competition for food, and less foraging beyond national forest boundaries.

But this year, again, drought wiped out the berry crop and left many oaks barren of acorns. This has forced the bears - normally solitary animals - to congregate in the few areas where food can still be found, creating easy targets for hunters. Regardless, the Game Commission has kept the extended hunt.

"I think it's the beginning of the end," says Jan Hayes with Bearwatch, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization.

From September of last year through August, hunters killed 60 bears in the 500-square-mile region. Add that to other losses, Hayes says, and the total population has been reduced by 59 percent.

Guns and science

In early 2000, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, along with the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, one of the world's top carnivore research institutes, completed a comprehensive study of bears in north-central and southwest New Mexico. The study determined that the minimum density required to sustain a healthy bear population was 50 bears per 115 square miles. Already, deaths from hunting, traffic accidents and drought have reduced the local bear population below the viability threshold.

So in August, Hayes took the study to the commission and urged them to call off the hunt entirely.

The commission, however, only restricted the remaining season to male bears, a strategy that requires hunters to tree a bear, then check its gender from below. Game and Fish biologist Bill Dunn agrees that the bears are under stress, but doesn't think that additional hunting would irreparably deplete the population, saying density is not a hard number, but "a general benchmark that conservation biologists use." Nor, he says, did Bearwatch account for "recruitment" of new animals from immigration and births; numerous sightings this year of sows with cubs indicate a higher-than-expected reproduction rate.

Area hunters have reported more bears than the study suggests, Dunn notes, adding that his department is initiating a three-year study for a more complete count.

But, Hayes says, the fundamental problem is that the commission is basing its decision to expand the hunt on anecdotal, incomplete information.

"This is not anti-hunting," she says, but the commission "consistently puts hunters before the resource or science."

Nowhere to hide

Although hunting poses the most immediate threat to the Sandia and Manzano bear population, the root of the problem is urban sprawl, which is rapidly turning these mountains into shrinking islands.

The city of Albuquerque, home to one-third of the state's 1.5 million people, now extends to the western face of the Sandias, and bedroom communities are springing up throughout the East Mountain Area on the other side of the Sandia and Manzano ranges. As homes encroach on what was once wildlife habitat, the bears are increasingly hemmed in and isolated.

For both regulatory agencies and groups like Bearwatch, urban sprawl is a formidable challenge.

"Bears have got to have space, but people keep moving to the East Mountains and displacing them," says Dunn. "We're caught in the middle."

That competition for space is likely to increase in the future: Enough new lots have been platted to double the number of homes in the East Mountain area, and a 4,000-home development is already under way.

But while citizen complaints sparked the extended hunting season, many locals contend that bears come with the property. Mina Carnicom, who's lived in the East Mountains for nearly 40 years, thinks a lot of people want to co-exist with bears. She says that if one chooses to live in the wild, one should expect to encounter wild inhabitants: "If not, you shouldn't be here."

Bearwatch has labored for nearly a decade to increase public awareness and acceptance of bears. But if Hayes is right about the impact of heavy hunting on the bears, that will soon be rendered moot.

"I am very, very discouraged," she says. "I feel like I've wasted nine years of my life."

The author lives in Albuquerque, where he is a reporter with The Independent.

You can contact ...

  • Bearwatch at 505/281-9282;
  • Albuquerque office of the state Game and Fish Department at 505/841-8881.
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