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!

Pollinators Spring into Action

Spring Azure butterflies will be appearing soon on the Pajarito Plateau. (Photo by Steve Cary)

By Jenna Stanek and Steve Cary

Pollination is a vital stage in the life cycle of all flowering plants. It occurs when pollen is moved within flowers or transferred between flowers by wind, water, or animals. Successful pollination results in the production of healthy fruit and fertile seeds, allowing plants to reproduce.

Pollinators are animals that enable the plant to achieve pollination, helping them make fruit or seeds. Without these animals, many types of plants wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Pollinators are responsible for helping over 90% of the world’s flowering plants reproduce and are therefore critical to our food supply as well as to the health and resilience of ecosystems.

Over 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators, and of those, about 1,000 are hummingbirds, bats, and small mammals. The rest are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths.

Spring is a time of transition. Plants are starting to emerge slowly and some are even getting ready to flower, but all and all there is not much variety for pollinators. Early spring pollinators are starting to fly, but there are not many different species out and about.

Mourning Cloak butterflies are emerging after spending the winter in cryopreservation! (Photo by Steve Cary)

One early-flying moth is the six-spotted Litocala moth (Litocala sexsignata), which often visits willow catkins. Spring butterflies in our area during this time of year include Mourning Cloak and Satyr Comma, both of which overwinter as adults. They spend the winter frozen in cryopreservation in tree cavities, beneath loose tree bark, or in unheated buildings. As temperatures warm up they simply slip out of their hiding places and take to the air. These butterflies are not frequent flower visitors and are instead likely to be seen looking for a mate, in order to lay eggs and complete their life cycle.

The Southwestern Orangetip has striking color contrasts. (Photo by Steve Cary)

Butterflies that you might see visiting early spring flowers include Checkered White, Southwestern Orangetip, and Spring White, that overwinter as pupa. The larvae of all three species eat mustard plants, including tansymustard, and also visit mustard flowers in the spring. Spring Azures are good flower visitors, too. All of the butterflies listed above should be in flight soon in the Los Alamos high country.

Look for Juniper Hairstreaks later in the spring. (Photo by Steve Cary)

Once spring really comes into full swing, you should be able to find Juniper Hairstreak, Mylitta Crescent, Acmon Blue, and Variegated Fritillary. Remember to also keep an eye out for the beautiful Monarch Butterflies and don’t forget to report any sightings you see this year to Journey North or iNaturalist.

You’ll have to wait until it really warms up and many flower species are blooming to see bumble bee pollinators. Some of the species that can be seen in Northern New Mexico include Hunt’s bumble bee, Golden northern bumble bee, and Morrison bumble bee. Use this key to identify bumble bees that you might see in your backyard once summer approaches.

Some scientific research suggests that many pollinator species are in decline. Pollinator declines are attributed to loss of habitat, pesticide exposure, diseases, parasites, and effects of introduced species. With all of their beauty and also their importance for food production, the conservation of all pollinators is vital to maintain healthy and productive ecosystems. 

Things YOU can do in your own yard to help some of our local native pollinators:

  • Plant flowers with a variety that bloom from spring to fall. Include lots of native species!
  • Include plants in your garden, such as milkweed for Monarch Butterflies and extra parsley or dill for Black Swallowtail Butterflies, to feed all stages of pollinators’ life cycles. In other words, don’t forget about the very hungry caterpillars!
  • Provide a source of water, such as a shallow basin of water set on the ground with some stones in it.
  • Leave some leaf litter and plants standing over the winter to provide overwintering habitat.
  • Give bees places to nest such as tree snags and bare patches of sandy soil or dirt.
  • Avoid pesticides.

Studying Monarch Butterflies in Los Alamos

Kids at the second release event on Oct. 5 were able to learn to hold a butterfly before it was released.

 

By Jenna Stanek

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) have declined by an estimated 80% over the past 20 years, primarily due to habitat conversion, insecticide and herbicide application, and eradication of milkweed plants. In 2014, they were petitioned to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that federally protecting the Monarch butterfly may be warranted. Currently, they are conducting a status review of the species and are required by law to reach a decision about federal protection by June 2019.

 

One of the Monarch caterpillars a few days after it hatched from its egg.

Monarch butterflies migrate from their wintering grounds along the coast of California and Mexico to their breeding grounds in the northern and central part of the U.S. and back again over five generations. The Monarch population east of the Rocky Mountains winters in Mexico and the population west of the Rocky Mountains winters along the coast of California. However, based on tagging efforts the southwestern Monarch populations seemingly go to either. New Mexico, in particular, has a dearth of information on where their Monarch populations go for the winter.

 

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) plants and this is the only type of plant their caterpillars can consume. Los Alamos County has five different native milkweed species, including Asclepias tuberosa which is sold at Petree Garden Center and is a beautiful perennial with orange flowers. In Los Alamos County, no one has documented the phenology of Monarchs. There are reports of adult population increases in August and migration in September, but no observations of caterpillars or breeding activity. 

Jenna found eight Monarch eggs on this Asclepias tuberosa in her backyard this summer.

On August 20, 2018, Brent Thompson and I observed a tattered, older looking female Monarch butterfly laying eggs on Horsetail Milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata), a species that commonly grows along the roadsides in the Los Alamos area. When we observed the patch of milkweed plants closer, we found three Monarch Butterfly eggs. Because the milkweed was along the roadside and could potentially be mowed for fire prevention we decided to collect the eggs and raise them.

Once the eggs hatched, we thought it would be a great idea to see if the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) would be interested in hosting the Monarch caterpillars at the Los Alamos Nature Center to help spread educational awareness about this once common and iconic butterfly. Three tiny Monarch caterpillars and milkweed for them to munch on was placed on display in the nature center’s wildlife observation room on August 25 so visitors could see these caterpillars grow and enter the chrysalis stage over the course of several weeks.

PEEC employees were ecstatic about our finding and put us in touch with Steve Cary, the author of the book Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico. He suggested we participate in the tagging effort of the Southwest Monarch Study where they are researching the migration and breeding patterns of Monarch butterflies in the southwestern United States.

This male Monarch butterfly was released on Oct. 5 at the nature center.

 

Six Monarch butterflies have been tagged and released since these initial eggs were found. Additionally, we held a butterfly release event at the nature center and released two of the three Monarchs that were raised there on September 24. We talked about Monarch butterfly phenology and the importance of planting milkweed on their breeding grounds. Two of the children who were at the release and correctly answered questions about Monarchs named the butterflies Bob and Jessica before they were released into the gardens. 

Sometimes early conservation efforts can prevent the need to list a species under the Endangered Species Act and encouraging people to plant milkweed is one of the easiest ways to positively impact Monarch populations. Learn more about Monarchs at the Southwest Monarch Study.