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Starving bears?

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Tour of Sandias takes a look at how much food is out there

While black-bear advocates claim bears in the Sandia Mountains are starving because of a lack of natural food, a recent tour of the mountains with a state Department of Game and Fish biologist found a variety of food available – although not as abundant as in most years.

Rick Winslow, the department’s bear and cougar expert, characterized this year’s bear food crop as being “between a medium to poor year.”

While he agrees that prolonged drought has limited the amount of natural food available to the Sandias’ bears – the acorn crop is 25 percent to 30 percent of normal and it was a bad year for juniper berries – he says it’s a myth that the bears are starving.

On the tour, he pointed to numerous areas where you could see natural food and said that it should improve through the fall.

“It’s normal for a bear’s (natural) food supply to be limited from May through July,” said Winslow. “The main mast crops that they rely on to bulk up for the winter don’t ripen until late summer and early fall.”

That’s occurring right now, in part because of recent rains that have nourished the forest and put water back into seasonally dry streams.

The Sandias produce a variety of natural bear foods, evidenced by the tour of its eastern slope on Thursday. They range from the obvious – acorns from several varieties of oak trees and juniper berries – to a plentiful oak root parasite known as bear corn.

The bears also feed on chokecherries, insects, piñon nuts, bee hives, cactus pears, grasses and forbs.

Roland and Gabie Warmuth walk their dog Ringo through the Cinega Canyon picnic area in the Sandias. Bear activity is common in the picnic area, because of a variety of natural food sources, Game and Fish officials say. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Roland and Gabie Warmuth walk their dog Ringo through the Cinega Canyon picnic area in the Sandias. Bear activity is common in the picnic area, because of a variety of natural food sources, Game and Fish officials say. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Jan Hayes, a bear advocate and founder of Sandia Mountain BearWatch, maintains that the Sandia bear population – estimated by Game and Fish at 46 to 72 bears – is being decimated by the impact of prolonged drought and a late winter freeze on their natural food resources. Hayes, former U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt and others have urged the state to feed the bears temporarily to divert them from foraging in populated areas.

But state officials say supplemental feeding leads to bigger problems, such as bears becoming dependent on human-provided food and losing their fear of humans.

Hayes said Friday that Winslow purposely took a Journal reporter and photographer to the few areas in the Sandias that had acorns, juniper berries, chokecherries and bear corn to bolster Game and Fish’s opposition to supplemental feeding.

“He took you to the few places that have it. There isn’t any anywhere else,” Hayes said.

Thursday’s tour included more than 15 stops, including areas that were barren of bear food.

Conditions improving

Since midsummer, reports of bears wandering into northern Albuquerque neighborhoods and elsewhere have kept Game and Fish officers busy trapping, tranquilizing and relocating bears.

The number of problem bears are increasing. Depredation killings – those necessitated when a bear comes into contact with humans and presents a potential or actual danger – spiked this year. There were two depredation kills of Sandia bears in 2012: As of Thursday, there had been 14 such kills, according to Game and Fish. The last time depredation kills in the Sandias reached double digits was in 2010.

State law requires that problem bears be killed and tested for rabies.

Despite this year’s increase in “nuisance bear” complaints, Winslow says the Sandia bears are not in danger of starving to death.

“Historically, the (Sandia) bears are nutritionally stressed in May, June and July,” he said.

Rick Winslow, a bear and cougar biologist with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, shows a Gambel’s oak that will provide bears with acorns later in the season. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Rick Winslow, a bear and cougar biologist with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, shows a Gambel’s oak that will provide bears with acorns later in the season. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“As soon as the spring green-up is over, bears are turning over rocks and tearing into logs to eat ants and whatever they can get. They eat grasses and small plants, because they don’t have a lot of nutritional resources. They’re still running largely on what they were able to store (in fat) from the previous fall. They’re essentially keeping themselves going.”

But as summer progresses toward fall, the bears’ food resources improve.

“They’re not abundant – which is what you’d expect during a drought – but there are food resources available,” Winslow said. That should lead to fewer bears wandering into populated areas.

Winslow also said the late freeze that hit the Sandias was spotty rather than widespread and affected only small patches of the forest.

“There’s (natural) food out there, but the bears have to work a little harder for it this year,” he said.

Acorns, berries and bear corn

Winslow said this year’s acorn crop is underdeveloped, “but it’s certainly not absent,” as he pointed out ripening acorns on Gambel’s oak trees. “The acorns don’t ripen until late August and early September.”

That’s just in time for the bears to build up fat reserves before winter hibernation. Winslow estimates this year’s acorn crop at 25 percent to 30 percent of average.

“Juniper berries are another bear staple” in the Sandias, he said. “A bear is going to eat juniper berries every year to some extent, because there’s always some available,” he said. “This is a really bad year for junipers, because only alligator and Utah junipers are producing berries. A third variety, single-seed junipers, are not producing, largely because of the extended drought.”

One of the more abundant bear foods in the Sandias is bear corn – an oak root parasite that produces short stalks of nutritious seeds.

“Bear corn is hugely important to bears in the Sandias, Manzanos and in a couple of other mountain ranges in the state,” Winslow said. “It starts fruiting by the middle of summer when other plants are still maturing.”

Bear scat in the U.S. Forest Service’s Sulphur Canyon Picnic Site, which typically has an abundance of oak trees and bear corn, was laden with bear corn on Thursday. Winslow said the site is closed to the public occasionally because of an abundance of foraging bears.

Natural bear food ripens earlier at lower elevations – where most people happen to live – so the bears begin appearing in populated areas about midsummer, then move to higher elevations as the summer progresses, Winslow said. That pattern is being repeated this year.

Trouble arises when a bear gets used to feeding on garbage, bird feeders, and other human-provided food – a process known as habituation. Once habituated, they become “problem” bears that need to be dealt with, either through relocation or euthanization.

“That’s why we tell people that a fed bear is a dead bear,” he said.

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