SANTA FE, N.M. — Los Alamos is undertaking an initiative to become the first bear-friendly community in New Mexico. It’s holding its first Bear Festival on Saturday, part of an officially declared Bear Month. People can try a bear-centric menu tonight at a local pub.
Jonathan Creel, director of interpretation at the Los Alamos Nature Center, said the goal is to get people to understand bears better and learn how to coexist in shared territory.
“Last year, we had a number of bears in town and incidents of them getting into garbage cans, and then there was the incident last summer in the Valles Caldera,” he said, referring to a woman being attacked by a bear protecting her cubs while she was running a marathon in the Valles Caldera National Preserve not far from Los Alamos.
Personnel from the state Game and Fish Department, per state policy, killed the mother bear because she had attacked the runner. That provoked a failed legislative effort – supported by mauled runner and nurse Karen Williams and sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, both from the Los Alamos area – to give Game and Fish and health officials more leeway when deciding whether a wild animal must be euthanized after attacking a person.
“So what this is about is getting people to understand the animal and what we can do to live safely and peacefully with bears,” Creel said. “Because we’re living in bear habitat. Our ranges are overlapping.”
Several groups have come together to put on the Bear Fest, including the Pajarito Environmental Education Center, the nonprofit group that runs the nature center, and the Land of Enchantment Wildlife Foundation, which works to support wildlife rehabilitation efforts across the state, including the care of two orphaned cubs of the mother bear that attacked the runner last year.
Kathleen Ramsay, the veterinarian who cared for the cubs before their release back into the wild in October, will be a part of Saturday’s festivities. Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service (including Smokey Bear), Bandelier National Monument, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Sandia Mountain Bear Watch, and Los Alamos Environmental Services will also be on hand for what is primarily an educational event.
“It’s all focused on having people understand what they can do to avoid negative interactions with bears,” Creel said, adding that Durango, Colo., has held similar bear education events.
People will learn what to do if they encounter a bear on a hike or in their backyard, how to safeguard their homes and themselves from unwanted visits by bears, and bear basics – how they live, what they eat and how they think. Documentaries featuring bears will be shown in the nature center’s planetarium.
To make the learning more fun and appealing to children, there will be a bear-themed scavenger hunt and other games. They’ll also get to crawl into a mock bear den, meet a “bee doctor” because bears love honey, and witness a demonstration by a scent dog to illustrate animals’ acute sense of smell.
“Hopefully, adults will learn something, too,” Creel said.
The Los Alamos County Council recently declared May “Bear Month” in Los Alamos to encourage residents “to become educated about bear safety and responsible coexistence with these remarkable animals, so that they can continue to thrive in the future.”
There are nearly 8,000 bears in New Mexico, not counting those that roam tribal lands, according to Game and Fish estimates. Their habitat includes the Jemez, Sangre de Cristo, Sandia, and Sacramento mountain ranges. All of them are American black bears, though their colors range to brown, cinnamon, reddish and blonde.
While some grow to weigh as much as 400 pounds, the average male weighs about 250 pounds and females average about 170. They can live into their 20s, though the average life span of a New Mexico bear is closer to 8 years. About 500 bears were killed last year, according to the department’s statistics, their demise primarily caused by state-managed hunting that includes limits, depredation by other bears, automobiles and other accidents.
One accident that drew national attention was that of marathoner Williams, who survived her mauling by playing dead when she crossed paths with the mother bear and her cubs while participating in the Valles Caldera Runs last summer.
In order to determine whether the attacking bear had rabies, the mama bear was captured and euthanized. The incident sparked debate about whether such races should be run through bear habitat in the first place, and about New Mexico’s euthanization policies for animals in such cases.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, made up of current and former state and federal government employees, recently criticized the decision to run a race through the Valles Caldera again this year.
But the National Park Service has approved an event for next weekend, called the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs, which includes races of 15, 31 and 50 miles and is expected to draw 500 participants. The Parks Service noted a positive influence on recreation and public relations at the preserve.
Organizers are taking extra precautions, including adding medical personnel, altering the course route, and requiring runners to wear “bear bells” meant to alert wildlife of their arrival without alarming them.
The race in which the bear attack occurred, the Valles Caldera Runs, is considering a fall date for this year.
Bear bill fails
Rep. Garcia Richard’s bill that would have provided for circumstances in which a bear could be allowed to live after an attack on humans – marathoner Williams said that in her case last year, the mama bear was just protecting her cubs – never got out of committee at the 2017 legislative session.
The state departments of Health and Game and Fish didn’t endorse the bill, citing the difficulty of determining under which circumstances wild animals would be killed.
“The only way to test a bear for rabies is to have its head cut off,” says Ramsay, the Los Alamos veterinarian who cared for the orphaned cubs. The middle of a bear’s brain is where the answer is found.
Ramsay has been involved with wildlife for 34 years, taking special interest in rehabilitation. She founded the New Mexico Wildlife Center in Española in the 1980s and helped launch the Los Alamos Wildlife Foundation.
“I love giving wildlife a second chance, a second chance at freedom,” she said. “There’s no one there to help them out but kind, caring citizens, and I’m one of those.”
She cared for two orphaned cubs of the bear that attacked Williams. The cubs, named Valley Girl and Cowboy, were 11 months old when they were released in the mountains of northern New Mexico in October.
“If I did my job well, they’re doing great,” she said when asked where they are now, adding that they should be coming out of hibernation about now.
Asked about her take on the controversy over whether races should be run through bear territory, Ramsay said, paraphrasing, “scat happens.”
“It was totally a risk factor of living in bear country,” she said. “We have bear encounters all the time.”
Ramsay said it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Williams did everything right. It was bad luck that she was separated from other runners when she came upon the mother bear and her cubs, she said.
Ramsay said she didn’t support the legislation that would have pardoned bears that attack humans from a death sentence under some circumstances. Even though bears carrying rabies are rare, the risk to the human victim is too great.
“I think the state did the right thing, unfortunately for the mother and unfortunately for the cubs,” she said.
Ramsay is scheduled to speak tonight at a “bear buffet” at Los Alamos’ Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op, catered by Hotel Santa Fe and presented by the Land of Enchantment Wildlife Foundation and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The menu lists bear food like salmon, nuts and mushrooms, even insects, with desserts “that represent the foods bears need to survive the winter,” the pub says.
Ramsay said since humans and bears have overlapping habitat, it’s best for people to know what to expect when they cross paths with bears.
“We need to educate people in New Mexico about bears,” she said, adding that was what Bear Festival is all about. “The mission is to get the community of Los Alamos to be a bear-friendly community. In order to do that, you have to teach people about how to live compatibly with bears.”
She said some unwanted encounters with bears could be avoided by taking simple steps, such as removing bird feeders, keeping dog food bowls inside the house or another secured spot, and doing the same with garbage and not putting on the curb until garbage day.
“If you’re living in bear country, you have to make sure the outside of your house is secure,” she said. “We’re out to make you think like a bear.”