Beware of bears heading to town

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Hibernation is ending and low moisture is leading hungry bears to local neighborhoods

By Carol A. Clark

The aroma of discarded meat products permeating through back yard trash cans is too much temptation for bears coming out of hibernation with big appetites.


“The lack of precipitation this winter and presumably through spring and summer will cause bears to come in to town in search of food,” said Conservation Officer Blake Swanson with New Mexico Game and Fish. “We want to educate the public of steps they can take to help avoid attracting bears into their yards.”

Swanson advises waiting to put unwanted food items in outdoor trash bins until the morning the trash is to be picked up by the county. Keep meat inside the refrigerator until trash day, he said, adding that residents with birdfeeders or bee hives should expect bears to visit their yards.

Bears are more often active at night and in the early morning hours, Swanson said. Bears don’t typically go after house pets such as dogs or cats, but should one be sighted, he advises against enticing it.

“You’re not bait but don’t threaten the bear; stop and stand your ground for a short period of time and give the bear its space – barking dogs will likely chase it off,” Swanson said.

The danger comes into play when a bear becomes habituated to populated areas. That’s when there becomes a high potential for someone to threaten or antagonize the bear, which could lead to problems, he said.

Los Alamos Police Lt. Preston Ballew explained that when people leave food out, that attracts the bears and residents call police who come out to the home.

“Bears are usually gone by the time we get there but the whole thing could be avoided if residents follow preventative maintenance tips,” Ballew said. “There will be bear sightings in Los Alamos because we are in the mountains so we want to work with the residents to alter their behaviors in an effort to avoid these types of problems.”

Swanson asks residents who do see a bear to stay inside their home or vehicle and take note of the bear’s description to give to game and fish. The description should include when possible the size, color and whether it has ear tags, which help conservation officers track patterns.

Bears “hibernate” and reduce their metabolism in response to cold or food shortage, according to game and fish. Their metabolic rate is cut in half and heart rates may drop to 1/10th of summer rates. Unlike typical hibernators, bears do not reduce their core temperature much (about 90° in ‘hibernation,’ about 100° in summer). They can maintain this high body temperature despite their slower metabolism in winter because they only keep their head and torso warm. Maintaining the brain at a high temperature enables bears to respond to danger and to tend the cubs born in midwinter.

“People in Los Alamos County do live in the woods, Swanson said, and we’re really just asking them to live with wildlife rather than against wildlife.”

Black bear fun facts

•Black bear is the state mammal
•Most American Black Bears are black or a dark brown but can be cinnamon, honey-colored or blonde
•Males weigh about 250 pounds; females typically 150-180 pounds
•Bears measure about three feet high on all fours
•Largest bear recorded in New Mexico was nearly 500 pounds
•Both sexes are promiscuous; a litter may have more than one father
•Except for mating and raising young, bears are generally solitary  
•Bears usually demonstrate mutual avoidance of each other rather than territorial aggression
•Bears have an uncanny sense of smell
•Bear hearing exceeds human frequency ranges and may be twice as sensitive
•Bear vision is sharp, at least close-up, and they use their color vision to quickly select foods. They see adequately in low light as well; they have a light-gathering layer in the back of their eyes, which is what gives them eyeshine.
•Bears can make explosive woofs and teeth snapping when frightened or trying to be frightening however, while bears’ teeth, claws, strength and size make them look like predators, they are in fact omnivorous, with diets highly dominated by plant material

Source: New Mexico Game and Fish