Getting to Hibernation: Best Practices for Living with Bears

A black bear crosses a road near Bandelier National Monument in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Creel)

By James Robinson
Los Alamos County Councilor

I have been receiving many emails, text messages, and phone calls concerning our increased bear activity, and I thought I would share some best practices to use until winter.

First, some education.

An American black bear this far into the year needs to consume over 10,000 calories a day to build the weight necessary for the winter. Bears are the world’s greatest calorie counters, and easy calories are always the best.

Traditionally, bears would get their calories by eating grasses, berries, acorns, and occasional meat sources. However, when these sources are limited due to drought, bears will often find their way into our roll-carts. These carts are full of better tasting, high calorie food than the bear would find in nature, and we tend to line it up nicely for them on the street — an easy way to make their calorie goal. Like a kid in a cookie jar, once they have positive reinforcement, they will keep coming back for more until the cookie jar is removed or they are punished.

Negative reinforcement of bears can range from yelling and screaming, to electric shocks, rubber bullets, and relocation. Ultimately, the bear might have to be euthanized. All because it kept coming for the cookie in the cookie jar.

This is where we, as residents of this area, come in.

As our area continues to experience extreme drought, we will continue to see more and more bears coming into town looking for food. It is up to each and every one of us to make sure that they cannot find easy food. Only then, can we assure that these bears will not have to face relocation or euthanization.

I have asked the County staff to begin procuring more bear resistant roll-carts. My goal is to get every household a bear resistant roll-cart, however, it will take time to get the carts and deploy them. In the meantime, I am asking all residents of Los Alamos to get creative in keeping bears out of our roll-carts. The easiest solution is to lock the roll-cart in a garage or shed until the morning of your scheduled collection. If you have this ability, PLEASE do this right away.

For those, like myself, who do not have a garage to store our roll-carts, my first recommendation would be to find a way to secure the lid of your roll-cart. This video demonstrates how this can be done using ratchet straps. Another option is to purchase an electric fence (similar to those used for dogs) and build a barrier around your roll-carts. Bears are very pain adverse and often will give up after one shock. Here’s some information from Bear Smart Durango on how to use electric fencing to deter bears.

Other options I have heard is cleaning your roll-cart regularly with ammonia, or even storing dirty diapers in the cart. We are a creative community. I feel we can come up with a million ways to build a better bear resistant roll-cart!

Ultimately, it is up to each and every one of us to protect our bears. I will continue to work on community wide efforts to help our citizens, however, due to the limitations of the Anti-Donation Clause, many of these options are up to the individual household.

As the adage goes, “a fed bear, is a dead bear.” Los Alamos has already seen one bear attack, and a mother bear and cubs relocated. Most likely, these bears will not be the last. By changing our habits, and working a little harder, we can make sure we live in harmony with our bears. It is up to us to take responsibility for the waste we generate.

To learn more about living amongst black bears, be sure to tune in for a talk from Kathleen Ramsay on Tuesday, September 1 at 7 PM. She will discuss the ways that bears access food in our communities, and what we can do to prevent this behavior.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at james.robinson@lacnm.us.

If you’d like more information on living with bears, I encourage you to visit this website as well for information on preventing problems.

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.

What Can We Learn From a Black Bear’s Skull?

Field Science Specialist Mariana Rivera Freeman shares a few things we can learn about black bears from their skulls.

Join PEEC’s Field Science Specialist, Mariana Rivera Freeman, to find out what you can learn from a black bear’s skull!

Mariana looks at what a black bear’s teeth, nose, and ears can tell us about these creatures in this video.

Thanks to Century Bank for sponsoring this year’s virtual Bear Fest content!

A Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge

PEEC Educator Denise Matthews and her helpers, Hugo and Jasper, joined us for Bear Festival to teach everyone how to play the Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge!

Join PEEC’s Play-based Education Specialist Denise Matthews and her helpers, Hugo and Jasper, to learn about the Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge in this video!

Try this activity out at home! Here are instructions for how to make the playdough and complete the challenge at home. If you try it out, we’d love to see your “scat” photos! Please send them to publicity@peecnature.org.

Be sure to check out the other events, contests, and more going on for Bear Festival here!

Bear-Safe Camping & Backpacking

PEEC volunteer Jean Dewart shares best practices for bear-safe camping and backpacking in this video, including a tutorial on how to hang a bear bag!

PEEC volunteer and avid backpacker Jean Dewart joined us to share some bear-safe camping and backpacking tips!

Check out this video to learn how to store your food and toiletries properly while adventuring and to learn how to hang a bear bag.

Thanks to Century Bank for sponsoring Bear Fest 2020! Learn more about the live events, contests, and other fun that’s going on here. If you’d like your own bear-resistant canister to take camping or backpacking, be sure to check out our Bear Festival contests!