This year for whatever reason, other guides and I have seen more bears and signs of their presence than in many previous years. Tracks and scat are clear signs, of course, and we often see them because bears like to use open trails, whether made by other game or humans. More subtle signs are logs and large stones overturned while the bear was foraging. A different kind of track appears in stands of aspen. See previous blog post, Aspen Messages.
New Mexico has Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in colors ranging from black through brown to various shades of red. Here, an average male weighs 200-500 pounds, with fully grown females around 150-300 pounds. This is America's smallest bear yet still a fast and formidable animal when threatened.
But despite their size and their position near the top of the food chain, they are seldom seen.
Cubs are borne in our area about every other year and stay with the mother for two years before being encouraged to leave. The success of breeding is tied to the females' fat reserves from the previous year, based on "mast" availability: the starchy foods like acorns and juniper berries that comprise a large percentage of bears' fall diet. Bears are perfect omnivores: they eat many different kinds of foods. Early season grasses and roots are consumed in quantity. Vegetation of some type probably makes up about 85% of a bear's diet. Insects, too, play a significant role--grubs, hornets, and yes, bees and their honey. But when the opportunity arises, adult bears are happy to eat meat, usually carrion. During the elk calving season, mortality of calves and even the elk cows is largely due to predators--coyotes and mountain lions--but bears do factor in. I've personally seen male bears doggedly trailing lone elk cows heavy with their pregnancies.
Compared with elsewhere in the country, few of our bears are habituated to human presence. There are relatively few "garbage bears", feeding is against the law, and there is a good bit of less-inhabited territory for bears to occupy rather than subdivisions. The exception is during poor food years when sub-adult females (low on the territorial totem pole) are crowded to the edges of territories and may find themselves in backyard apple trees.
The upshot is that our bears are pretty wild and would prefer to be elsewhere should a meeting with a human occur. Black bears have rather poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell. If one is encountered on trail which seems inclined to approach you, don't run! Stand tall, talk, make yourself look larger and be noticed, but don't look directly at the bear. Move off or back away slowly while still watching the bear. A bear which stands on its hind legs is not charging, but usually trying to get a better look (or smell). The most dangerous confrontation would involve a mother defending cubs, so it's best to be cautious. If you see cubs, carefully put some distance between you (even off-trail), so you're less likely to be in between mom and a cub.
Along with the bears, we guides are happy this year to see lots of acorns crowding the branches of scrub oaks, junipers heavy with berries, and other wonderful foods for bears out in the wilds. After a couple of harder, drier seasons, the bears should have an easier time of it this year.
For more information, see the pamphlet from our Department of Game & Fish http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/publications/documents/blackbears.pdf