Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sandia Mountain Bear Watch: Wildlife Stewardship

On Thursday mornings, East Mountian residents who subscribe to the Albuquerque Journal get the Mountain View Telegraph delivered with it.

Last Thursday, N. and I opened our copy and saw this picture in the paper.

It is a young female black bear in a tree near an elementary school in Edgewood. Black bear is her species, not her color.

Now bears usually come down from the mountains in drought years, when food is scarce, and usually in the late summer as they are feeding up for their winter sleep. Young two-year old males usually are seen in towns or in rural places migrating from one mountain range to another, when their mother's kick them out in order to prepare for new cubs. But this year, which is a wet spring, four bears so far have been seen in town. One young male in Rio Rancho actually entered a hospital clinic through the automatic door and got stuck in a bathroom. Fish and Wildlife had to remove him. I don't think he even paid his co-pay! :)

These stories, and the story of the city boy from Dallas who came across a bear while hiking in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness--in his panic he did all the wrong things--peaked N.'s interest in bears and the wildlife of the Sandia Mountains. So yesterday afternoon, we went to the Sandia Mountain Bearwatch annual meeting--pleasantly conducted outdoors at Doc Long picnic grounds on the Sandia Crest Road.

They had a talk about Bears from a Park Service biologist, and a talk about Cougars (North American Mountain Lions) from a representative of Animal Protection of New Mexico.
N. learned some interesting things about how to deal with bear encounters. Bears are not predators, of course, so the Dallas city boy had it wrong--he thought the bear was stalking him. Most likely, he crossed the bear's path and startled it. His response was to run, and the curious bear followed him, probably looking for food. Bears do not generally attack, but if you scare one, it can harm you. Like an irritable dog, it is best not to challenge a bear by staring it down, it is best to back away slowly and get out of its way. And like with a dog, if you run from a bear, it will chase you.

Cougars, on the other hand, are predators. They will stalk your chickens and goats and sheep and dogs, and small children. They generally do not go after adults, but if you encounter one, your response must be to stand your ground, protect little ones, make yourself look bigger, throw things, make noise and generally let it know that you are not dinner. Of course, since cougars are predators, you are not very likely to ever even see one. And it would be very rare to be attacked by one. They usually avoid groups of people.

As mountain dwellers, we live in bear and cougar habitat. I have not encountered a bear in the Sandia Mountains, but I have elsewhere. I was startled, but it was in a tree and so I just backed away at an angle and got out of its path. No problem, just a rapid heartbeat and extreme caution for the next half-hour or so!

We have seen cougar tracks on the wilderness trails above our house, so we know we have a cougar in the area. Since their range is large, and they avoid people, it is likely that we will not ever see it.

The Bear Watch meeting was informative and we learned about how the Sandia Mountain Bear Watch has finally gotten the Manzano hunt stopped. We learned about mapping and the uncertainty of numbers for bears and cougars in our area.

N. joined the Bear Watch and has volunteered to be a wildlife steward for our neighborhood. His job is to read two books that he was given, and then distribute literature to the people in our neighborhood. It is literature that tells them how to avoid bear incursions--'a fed bear is a dead bear'--as well as how to co-exist with other common wildlife in our mountains and deal with them without killing them.

He can get community service credit in Boy Scouts by doing this, and he will use what he is learning from his Kamana program, as well. This is another real life learning opportunity and community service opportunity that is in an area of great interest to him. He will need to do more reading and then communicate what he has learned to others in order to educate them on how to co-exist with the animals who share our mountains.

Think of the content and skills that he will practice with this project:
  • detailed content about bears and other wildlife in our area
  • an understanding of the ecological niches wildlife occupies and community ecology
  • an understanding of species interactions in our mountain ecology (predation, commensalism, mutualism, and competition)
  • Formal and informal writing skills (written communication with neighbors and with Bear Watch)
  • Formal and informal speaking skills (direct communication with neighbors and a speaking engagement at the neighborhood watch meeting)

And this is a project of his own choosing, in an area of his passion, and one that matters to other people and one that benefits our community and the natural world.

Pretty cool!

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