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N.M. bear-management methods prompt concerns

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE – No one knows exactly how many black bears are roaming the mountains that border New Mexico’s most populous area, but conservationists Tuesday accused state wildlife managers of targeting the area’s bears for removal to bring an end to nuisance calls.

The state Game and Fish Department adamantly denied the accusations, saying the number of bears in the Sandia Mountains that were removed or killed in 2010 and 2011 is far below what the group is alleging.

Sandia Mountain BearWatch contends a review of logs kept by Game and Fish conservation officers showed 49 bears in the mountain range were trapped and either relocated or killed during the two-year period. In the last five years, the group said 69 bears have been killed or relocated.

“This is very, very destructive to the overall population,” said Jan Hayes, founder of the bear-conservation group.

Hayes argued the agency’s policies are based on inflated estimates of bear populations statewide, and said the Sandia Mountains need a healthy population to maintain an ecological balance.

“We’ve got hantavirus. We’ve got plague,” she said. “These animals are there to balance out nature. When you start taking away all the predators, then you start having a lot of rodents and all kinds of things, and you start having sick people.”

Hayes said some signs indicate there are fewer bears in the Sandias than in previous years. The animals have been absent on game cameras set up by residents and scat has been nonexistent in previously frequented areas, she said.

Rick Winslow, the wildlife department’s large carnivore biologist, said he spotted scat and other signs of bear during a recent outing with school children in a popular hiking spot on the western side of the Sandias. He said his office also has fielded reports of a female bear and her cubs hanging around a picnic area.

The state Game and Fish Department estimates between 5,300 and 6,500 bears inhabit New Mexico’s mountain ranges. The Sandia population represents about 1 percent, while the adjacent population in the Manzano Mountains stands at about 2.5 percent.

“It’s not our job to eliminate bears. It’s our job to manage the bear population,” Winslow said.

Winslow also said nuisance calls involving bears are less frequent than last year, when a record number of incidents were reported around the state.

Experts suspect the decrease stems in part from a lack of freezes in late winter and early spring. That allowed food sources, such as juniper berries, oak and acorn crops, to flourish.

Hayes said the key to reducing human-bear conflicts is ensuring that homeowners secure their garbage and that recreationists keep tidy camp or picnic sites.

She said she’s trying to combat the idea that bears are a problem species that have to be removed or eliminated.

“You can live with black bear. It’s simple,” she said. “Do people really want a sterile mountain? Do they not want any kind of wildlife up here?”

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