Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The big cats are the attention-grabbers in a rules change being considered by state wildlife officials, but New Mexico’s bears are under the gun as well.
The Department of Game and Fish is weighing whether – and where – to increase the number of bears that hunters are allowed to kill each year.
At the same time, it’s proposing to allow hunters to use snares and traps to capture cougars, a controversial idea that has dominated the rules-change discussion.
The department says its policy is to review the Bear and Cougar Rule every four years, and it’s time to do that.
But it’s still waiting for the results of new bear population studies that have been going on for three years.
In the meantime, the agency is holding public hearings around the state on a broad-brush proposal to increase bear harvest limits in certain hunting zones – it hasn’t said which – and to open to bear hunting a swath of land in eastern New Mexico just south of Interstate 40.
Bear advocates are worried about the potential impact of more hunting on what they call “the most vulnerable hunted species in our state.”
“They’ve made the (harvest) numbers so high, there’s actually no protection for this species,” said Jan Hayes, founder of Sandia BearWatch.
The Department of Game and Fish has estimated there are between 6,000 and 7,000 black bears in New Mexico. Hunters are allowed to kill 640 each year.
Department statistics show more than 2,800 bears have been killed over the past four years – mostly by hunters, but also on roadways, or by landowners or law enforcement because they were deemed nuisances, or for other reasons.
Sandia BearWatch recommended in a recent letter to the Game Commission that it lower the harvest limit to 350 or 400 to ensure a healthy population.
The advocacy group is particularly concerned about bears in the Sandia Mountains, a virtually isolated population that was slammed by drought a couple of years ago and where Game and Fish last year estimated there are between 46 and 72 bears.
Ranchers and farmers are expected to be largely supportive of expanding bear hunting, although they’re holding off on submitting comments until a more detailed proposal is made.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said the department’s numbers are conservative.
“When you look at the amount of predators generally in the state … you’ve got to manage that population, and that management includes bears,” she said.
Over the past three summers, Matthew Gould and his small team have hiked the mountains of northern and southern New Mexico on the research project for Game and Fish.
They strung strands of barbed wire between trees, forcing bears attracted by a smelly lure to clamber over or under it. The snagged tufts of hair were sent off for DNA testing at a Canadian genetics laboratory.
“The point of it is to collect hair from as many individual bears as we can” and use that to estimate density, said Gould, a doctoral student in the biology department at New Mexico State University.
The testing identifies individuals and their genders, although not age. It also can pick up the occasional serious traveler – like the bear that made appearances both in northern New Mexico’s Valle Vidal and about 35 miles away on the Vermejo Park Ranch.
“He’s the winner so far. … He booked it,” Gould said.
The DNA testing is completed for northern and southern portions of the Sangre de Cristos, and data on the Sacramento Mountains should be available soon, Gould told the Journal .
The department also has been conducting a similar study in the Sandias, which is ongoing.
The results from all the study areas will be available before the department makes its final rules-change recommendation to the Game Commission in August, according to Lance Cherry, the department’s chief of information and education.
The commission could then make a decision on the new rules at the same meeting.
Critics question the timetable.
“It seems really premature we would be making all those proposals without being informed by those numbers,” said Mary Katherine Ray, wildlife chairwoman for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Gould said his study showed the bear population to be a little denser in the northern Sangre de Cristos than the Game Commission has been estimating, and about the same in the southern Sangre de Cristos.
Cherry said some northern areas show densities about 35 percent higher than previously estimated.
The department’s population estimates have been based on a 2001 habitat model, developed from research in the 1990s, that concluded about 13 percent of New Mexico is primary bear habitat.
Department wildlife biologist Elise Goldstein told the Game Commission at a recent meeting that preliminary results from the updated modeling suggest there’s more habitat than that and the population is denser.
Sandia Mountain BearWatch contends the population is in decline. It points to a drop of 28 percent in bears killed from all causes last year – from 778 in 2013 to 559 in 2014, even though there was no drop in bear license purchases. That’s a red flag that the population is being depleted, according to the organization
The group also claims the department is allowing too many female bears to be taken. Sows accounted for about 37 or 38 percent of the kills over the past three years; BearWatch claims 30 percent should be the maximum.
Goldstein told the Game Commission the average age of bears when they’re harvested – 6 or 7 for females and 7 for males – isn’t going down. If they were being overharvested, the average age would decline, she said, so there’s no indication of overharvesting.
The Sierra Club’s Ray questions whether that has been verified by fieldwork.
“This is an animal that can live to be 30,” she said.
The department says it is considering ways to restructure the hunting season so that hunting is more evenly distributed – rather than peaking at the season’s start – and so hunters get better-quality bears.
Critics are concerned that Game and Fish may authorize a spring hunt for bears, which they claim would be unethical because bears just out of their dens are weak and tender-footed, and because it could cause sows to abandon or try to relocate defenseless cubs.
“If they go ahead with that spring bear hunt, they might as well just kiss those bears goodbye,” said Sandia BearWatch member Karen Borch.