Where’s the Water? Bears in the Sandia Mountains

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A black bear sitting in Paradise Spring in 2008, the first year the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center put out their game cameras.
A game camera located at one of the springs that the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center monitors.

By Fiana Shapiro, Environmental Educator at the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center

Here at the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, located in the mountains east of Albuquerque, we’ve been tracking bear visits for 12 years! We’ve recorded animal visits at two nearby springs, called Mud and Paradise, by stationing game cameras at both locations all year long. Both springs are located within the Cibola National Forest.

These cameras are motion and heat sensing, so they automatically snap photos of the animals that move in front of them. Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about our resident black bears through this project!

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A bear with blonde fur at Mud Spring in 2009. Many New Mexico black bears have fur colors other than black, though they are all one species.

Paradise Spring dried up when the groundwater that filled it in dropped underground. Looking at these graphs, can you tell when that happened?

In late 2011 and into the spring of 2012, this spring was drying up. This has happened to many springs in the Sandia Mountains, often due to years of less snowpack higher on the mountain. In the spring, any snow up high that melts trickles slowly down into the groundwater and moves down the mountain. 

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Cubs trying to get water from Paradise Spring when it was almost dry.
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A bear at Mud Spring in 2013, after it had become the more popular watering hole because it still had water.

Luckily for now, Mud Spring is still filled in by groundwater, so bears can keep coming back throughout the spring, summer, and fall each year. As you can see in this graph, their favorite month to visit is June, followed by July. I bet you drink more water in the hot summer months, too!

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Licking up the last bit of water, mid-day on the last day of August 2013.

Speaking of heat, this graph shows what the air temperature was during bear visits (the cameras detect that, too). 60-64°F sounds like a nice cool time to take a hike over to a spring, doesn’t it? So even though bears are coming most often in some of the hottest months of the year, we’ve noticed that they seem to time their visits for when it is a bit cooler. 

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Because our winters can be mild without a lot of snow, New Mexico’s bears sometimes venture out of their dens in the winter months. However, it’s rare that they visit our springs in the winter, preferring to stay close to home. 

What time of day would you think bears like to come by the springs?

Turns out, they don’t seem to have much of a preference. Visits happen equally in morning, afternoon, and evening. Their least favorite time period is from midnight to 4 AM. I know I don’t like to wake up thirsty in the middle of the night!

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This bear is one of the exceptions — clearly they are a “night owl.”

Climate change in New Mexico is causing worse and longer droughts, less snow each winter, and hotter temperatures that evaporate water and make animals thirstier, which means that the wildlife here are finding it harder and harder to get the water they need.

At Mud Spring, we witness the water level dropping a little each year, as the bears dig down to get to the wet spots and drink from a pool smaller than themselves. If we can work to slow the impacts of climate change more, we can help the bears, as well as the squirrels, deer, birds, skunks, bobcats, ringtails, coyotes, and mountain lions to survive. 

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A bear checking out one of the Mud Spring cameras last month. We have seen a lot of bear activity this year, perhaps because humans aren’t hiking our trails as frequently.
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A mama bear with her cubs. It’s a good sign that a bear is healthy and that there’s enough food for her to find when she’s given birth to cubs (if not, she won’t have babies that year). Black bears have 1 – 3 cubs at a time.

Here’s a video of all different species of wildlife that visited Mud Spring this spring:

Do you want to see more photos from the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center’s critter cameras? Check out this webpage.

The SMNHC is a joint partnership between Albuquerque Public Schools and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. For more information, visit their website.

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