Awakening bears could slip into Santa Fe for a snack

May 3, 2019 GMT

Barbara and Doug Rasor thought they had brought in all of their bird feeders by the time darkness fell on the evening of April 24.

They were mistaken. Still hanging outside their house in the Sierra del Norte Trailhead area on the eastern side of the city was a hummingbird feeder full of sweet nectar and a cylinder bird feeder dangling from a tree.

At 8:40 p.m., a big black bear came ambling down out of the hills to enjoy a snack in their backyard. A surveillance camera located on the property caught the pillaging critter knocking down the hummingbird feeder and “trying to get all of the sweet stuff out of it,” Barbara Rasor said.

Hibernation season is over for Northern New Mexico’s black bears, and wildlife experts warn that the animals’ internal mechanisms have been altered by what, until this winter, had been a prolonged drought in the area. That means bears are more likely to pop into the city to look for food and water — even in years, like this one, when snow and food sources are plentiful in the mountains.

Despite the healthy and wet run of winter in the northern part of the state, those bears are still used to coming out of their winter sleep and heading for places they know food exists — like your backyard, said Daryl Ratajczak, a Santa Fe National Forest wildlife biologist.

“Just because we have had a good, wet spring does not mean that they are in good shape,” Ratajczak said. “I expect in early spring they are going to be hungry. This is typically the time when they get into trouble with humans at campgrounds and residential areas because they are starved for calories.”

The good news? New Mexico Department of Game and Fish spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford said officials expect the number of bear encounters and sightings to decrease as spring continues and those bears return to natural food sources closer to their homes.

But Bickford added that nothing is certain with bears.

“They are wild animals and don’t follow the rules that we set down for them,” she said. “So they may stumble into your neighborhood.”

Though many New Mexicans are inured to seeing bears, mountain lions or coyotes, their appearance does shake things up.

Last summer, employees and patrons of Perfection Auto Craft on Cooks Road near Agua Fría Street were surprised to find a black beer wandering about their lot in broad daylight. Game and Fish officials showed up to tranquilize the animal.

Fast-forward several months. Rasor, who has owned a home with her husband in Santa Fe for 19 years, said she’s become used to such encounters. But each one is different, and in some cases, bears find more than bird food.

Video surveillance footage from previous years shows bears jumping into her koi pond for a late dinner.

“Last year, they ate about 10 of our koi,” she said.

The bear — or another bear — showed up at their place again April 30 at about 5:45 a.m. She and her husband yelled at it, and it ran off.

Bickford said it’s imperative for residents to remove bird feeders, seen as high-calorie treats to bears, at night. Garbage, especially with food in it, should be kept in an airtight container or inside at night. And if you keep pet bowls full of food outside, bring them in at night if there’s any trace of food left in them, she said.

Bickford said that unless a bear, particularly a mom with cubs, feels threatened, the animal is just as likely to want to avoid humans as the other way around.

“Give any wild animal the chance to escape, and almost every time they will turn and go in the other direction,” she said.

Still, Game and Fish officials have long said that if a bear does attack you, do everything you can to fight back, using rocks, sticks, binoculars and even your hands, aiming for their eyes and nose.