RATON – It was, oh, around 10 o’clock when we came across our third bear, a fat dark one that had been hanging around a garbage Dumpster and, startled by the car lights, dashed into the front yard of a house on Sixth Street.
We had spent suppertime watching a bear eat cat food in a driveway and then watching that bear skedaddle when a bigger bear ambled over and commandeered the cat food dish.
Our fourth, fifth and sixth bears came in quick succession. A bear was waddling down the sidewalk on Third Street. The biggest bear I have ever seen was sitting in front of a house on Park Avenue while a dog went nuts in a yard nearby. And in an alley downtown, a female bear hopped out of a trash can as we rolled up, froze for a few minutes and then popped back in to leisurely finish her garbage meal.
We saw six bears in about three hours in the middle of residential neighborhoods, and, yawn, no one seemed terribly concerned. We were with New Mexico Game and Fish warden Clint Henson, who took out his flashlight a few times but never reached for a tranquilizer gun or his pistol.
Even when the big bear stood up on his hind legs, stretching to at least 6 feet, Henson only marveled at its size. “That’s a really big bear,” he said.
Neither were the townspeople of Raton out with their cellphones dialing 911 and demanding that someone arrive to rescue them from an encounter with the state mammal.
Ratonian Colleen Grogan laughed when I told her that people in Albuquerque call the cops whenever they see a bear.
“We could call 911 till hell froze over,” she said, “and they’d say, ‘Really? And what else is new?’ ”
In Albuquerque, a bear in a neighborhood attracts game wardens and TV crews, and it often ends badly for the bear.
Raton has a different relationship with its 25 to 30 resident bears, and it goes like this: The bears hang out in trees or culverts or the nearby hills during the day, fast asleep. After dark, they come out and raid a good number of the more than 1,000 small garbage Dumpsters that dot the town, pulling out bags of trash, rooting through them and leaving a mess. In the morning, city sanitation workers and residents clean up the garbage, and when the sun sets, the cycle begins again.
Game and Fish considers this a garbage problem and signed a contract with the city last year to provide $317,000 to replace all those tasty, accessible trash cans that sit all over town with 40 larger bear-proof Dumpsters.
Raton City Manager Butch McGowen told me the city considers this a bear problem. He said he voided the trash container contract, because the city didn’t want to spend money on two new trucks to empty those Dumpsters and inconvenience residents by making them drive their garbage to a centralized location.
The city of about 6,800 people straddles Interstate 25 close to the Colorado border. But in terms of bears, it’s the neighbor to the west that makes all the difference.
The Vermejo Park Ranch, 920 square miles of open space owned by Ted Turner, is filled with bears. When young male bears go searching for territory, a few of them inevitably end up in the hills outside Raton, where they smell McDonald’s and Sonic and Arby’s and lots of ripe garbage cans and stop in for a meal.
Raton is filled with leafy trees that make ideal daytime nesting spots and a web of drainage canals that allow bears to bypass traffic and move mostly unseen through town.
“A bear can be in the woods and then at McDonald’s in like five minutes,” Henson said.
Also, the way the city organizes its garbage collection – small Dumpsters every few houses where people dump their fresh garbage every day with pickup once a week – contributes to a happy bear life.
“It’s such a great place for a bear to live,” Henson said. “Bears here are, for the most part, incredibly docile. They’re here for the pizza.”
None of this is to say there are not conflicts.
In July, near a driveway where we watched the bears eating kibble left out for feral cats, a bear walked through a door left open at a home and ate a 5-year-old girl’s birthday cake off the kitchen table while the family slept. That bear was trapped and killed.
Henson has killed bears, too, mostly bears that have trespassed into a home or garage or refused to give ground when confronted. He hates it.
“Oh, it’s horrible,” Henson said. “My job is to protect wildlife.”
Henson told me he prefers to haze a misbehaving bear by shooting it with paint balls or, better yet, to just leave alone a bear that’s not misbehaving.
I asked him what he does when someone calls Game and Fish and reports a bear in a tree. He said he tells the caller to leave the bear alone and assures the person it will be gone tomorrow.
“If I walk up to a bear and it runs away from me,” Henson said, “that’s a good bear. If it sleeps during the day and eats out of Dumpsters at night, that’s a good bear. If a bear’s in the trash, that’s a people problem.”
It seemed that everyone in Raton had a bear story. Raton is the place, after all, where a bear walked into the lobby of the Best Western and headed for the pool, where a bear that had been making nightly raids of the Sonic Dumpster climbed up a utility pole and got snagged by her radio collar, and where a bear that had apparently been dozing in a Dumpster on trash collection day was compacted with fatal results.
My favorite bear anecdote was from the folks who know their neighborhood bear by the time each night he walks out of the ditch and raids the can on their corner: 9:45.
So when I called Raton Mayor Bobby Ledoux to ask him about the trash problem, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to talk about bears instead.
“I have a minimum of four by my house every night,” he said. “They’re like the state patrol; they have their routes. They’re way too friendly.”
McGowen, the city manager who canceled the trash bin contract, agreed that it’s the trash that’s attracting bears. He said he would like to continue talks with Game and Fish and devise a trash can solution that works for everyone. Meanwhile, he tells Ratonians to empty their trash bags into the Dumpsters so bears can get to their discarded food more easily.
“That way they can’t grab a sack and scatter it all over,” he said.
Henson told me nothing in town will change – not the midnight Dumpster raids or the garbage-strewn yards or the fatal consequences when habituation to people turns a good bear into a bad bear and a bad bear into a dead bear – until garbage collection changes and stored garbage moves out of residential neighborhoods.
“I am sick of killing bears that are in town because of our behavior,” Henson said.
Raton residents tell their bear stories