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.

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!

What to Do if You See a Black Bear

PEEC’s Director of Interpretation Kristen O’Hara shares some quick tips on what to do if you encounter a black bear in your neighborhood or while hiking.

Do you know what to do if you encounter a black bear in your neighborhood or while hiking? Check out this video from the Pajarito Environmental Education Center’s Director of Interpretation Kristen O’Hara for some dos and don’ts!

Today is the first day of our week-long virtual Bear Festival! Stay tuned for more videos, blogs, and fun! Thanks to Century Bank for sponsoring this event.

If you’d like to learn more about bear communication and how you should respond to one, be sure to tune in for tomorrow’s live-streamed talk, called “Bear Speak,” from wildlife biologist and Wildlife For You instructor Daryl Ratajczak.

Learn more about PEEC’s Bear Festival and upcoming live events here.

Be Bear Aware: Keeping Our Black Bears Safe

A mother bear and her three cubs on Barranca Mesa. The trashcan in the photo is empty. It was trash pick up day and had not made it back into the garage yet. (Photo by Cornell Wright)

UPDATED: September 2, 2020

By Jenna Stanek

Los Alamos County is home to a unique subspecies of black bear, the New Mexico black bear (Ursus americanus amblyceps). The New Mexico black bear is the official state animal of New Mexico and occurs in Colorado, New Mexico, western Texas, eastern Arizona, and southeastern Utah. Grizzly bears, also called brown bears, no longer occur in New Mexico. The color of the black bear can vary from black, brown, to cinnamon. Cinnamon colored black bears are the most common color we see in New Mexico.

Black bears are opportunistic omnivores and have a diet that varies according to the seasonal availability of foods. In the spring, their diet is mostly grasses, forbs, roots, mushrooms, insects, and carrion. In summer, they forage on grasses, forbs, acorns, insects, berries, and other fruit. Later in the summer and in the fall, bears eat acorns, piñon nuts, and juniper berries.

This black bear was photographed in Water Canyon in the summer of 2016. (Photo by Craig Martin)

A black bear’s potential life span may exceed more than 30 years. In New Mexico, wild bears have been documented to live 20 – 25 years. The black bear does not start to breed until they are 5 – 6 years old and a female who successfully raises cubs will mate only once every two years. Two of their most frequent causes of death are predation by other bears and becoming a nuisance by getting used to accessible human garbage and subsequently having to be killed.

During a drought or when food is scarce, bears often extend their range looking for food. Their keen sense of smell can lead them to accessible human garbage. Worse yet, a mama bear that has cubs will teach them her bad habits. The most effective solution to deter a bear is to bring in or make inaccessible any potential food sources. If the bear wanders into neighborhoods and does not find food available, it will move on.

Relocation of nuisance bears occurs after repeated complaints. The bear is ear tagged and relocated. If the bear continues to be a nuisance or is considered to be dangerous to humans, it is killed. An inaccurate public perception is that relocating problem bears means a happily ever after for everyone involved. However, most transplant bears don’t have much of a chance for survival, with only a 30 – 35% success rate for adult bears. If a nuisance bear is moved into another bear’s territory the resident bears will chase them away or kill them. Young cubs moved with their mama bear may also share this fate. Additionally, a relocated bear will travel vast distances to find its way “home” or will continue their bad habits in their new location.

Female black bears remain near their birth site throughout their life so juvenile females are likely to try harder to return to the capture area than young adult males (<4 years old). Whether a bear is moved or not, human food availability at the original location still needs to be addressed. Relocation merely treats the symptoms, not the initial problem of bears accessing human food. New bears will fill the empty territory left by the relocated bears and a new cycle of bears utilizing human foods and subsequent conflict will begin.

We can all do our best to minimize human-bear interactions by remembering these six bear-wise basics. Please stay bear aware!

Help keep wildlife wild by remembering these bear-wise basics:

  1. Never feed or approach bears. Feeding bears — intentionally or unintentionally — trains them to approach buildings and people to find food. It is illegal to create a nuisance bear by feeding them.
  2. Secure your food and garbage. Food and food odors attract bears, so don’t reward them with easily accessible garbage or food (including pet food left outside).
  3. Unsecured garbage is the primary cause of most human bear conflicts. Bears generally avoid humans unless they become conditioned to eating human food or garbage.
  4. Remove bird feeders when bears are active. Take in your feeders at night or if bears have recently been seen near your home. Alternatively, only put feeders out during the winter when bears are hibernating.
  5. Clean and store grills. Make sure that all grease, fat, and food particles are removed after grilling. We recommend storing your grill in a secure garage or shed when it’s not in use.
  6. Don’t put trash out until the morning of your collection. Store your garbage can in your garage and be sure to properly use a bear resistant trashcan from Los Alamos County if you have one. The County is currently out of these roll-carts. While they are acquiring more, we encourage people to use ratchet straps, team up with a neighbor that has a bear-resistant cart or garage, use electric fencing, or otherwise get creative in finding ways to secure their trash from bears. Get some ideas in this letter from County Councilor James Robinson.

Do you want to learn more?

There are many great resources out there that can help you learn more about staying safe around black bears. Here are a few of our favorites!