rom Paleolithic times to the present, bears have fascinated humans.
However, all too often, our interest in bears is misinformed and marred
by inaccurate beliefs.
On the one hand, we feel a kinship with bears, due partly to the traits
we have in common. Bears stand erect on the soles of their feet, sit on their
rumps and have shoulder joints which allow free rotation of limbs. Like us, they
are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Bears can use their front paws
like hands, and their eyes are nearly aligned in a frontal plane. Their hind paw
prints looks uncannily like a barefoot human print. In addition, bears occupy a
distinct, often exalted place in folklore,
mythology, legend and literature. Many
indigenous cultures in the Southwest have
incorporated bears into their system of
beliefs. They share a belief that bears
possess wisdom and power. Hunting
customs, ceremonial feasts, and the
depiction of bears in art, song, story and
dance highlight the importance of bears to
Their popularization in the form of cuddly teddy bears such as Pooh and Yogi
has helped create a potentially dangerous misconception in the minds of children
as well as adults. Associating these fictional bears with wild bears regularly leads
people to risk serious harm in their attempt to befriend these powerful wild
On the other hand, many of us also have a deep fear of bears. Sensational
depictions of bears in movies, stories, and tall tales misrepresent actual bear
behavior. Such stories leave us with the equally erroneous impression of the
bear’s ferocity and viciousness.
Actually, the factual information about these remarkable animals is more
fascinating than our romantic and sensational misconceptions of bears.
Historically, both black bears and grizzlies lived in New
Mexico. Grizzlies were common in open grasslands as
well as in forested areas. Currently, our black bear
population is estimated at 5,000-6,000. Why have black
bears managed to survive while grizzlies have not?
The name ‘black bear’ can be misleading. New Mexico’s
black bears actually come in a variety of color phases
ranging from black and brown, to cinnamon (the most
common color), reddish and blonde.
Grizzlies are more aggressive than black bears. Grizzlies
evolved primarily on the plains where cover is scarce so
they tend to stand and fight rather than flee. They are
more predatory and carnivorous than black bears.
Grizzlies found easy prey when Spanish settlers brought
their cattle and sheep to New Mexico. In order to protect
the ranching industry (especially wool growers),
government and private bear trappers were granted
unlimited hunting, trapping and poisoning privileges.
At the same time, much of grizzly bear habitat in New
Mexico was converted to grazing land and other uses.
In 1927 the New Mexico Legislature passed a law adding
grizzlies to the list of protected big game species but it
was already too late for them. Their numbers were too
small and their reproductive rates too low for them to
recover. The last recorded grizzly in New Mexico was
killed in 1931 north of Silver City.
An adult male black bear can
weigh up to 400 pounds,
though the average male
weighs about 250 pounds.
Female black bears typically
weigh between 150 and 180
pounds. Their powerful limbs
each have five toes and five
short, curved claws for digging
and cutting. Their front feet
are about as long as they are
wide, but the hind feet are
long and narrow and resemble
a human foot. Black bears
have strong muscular necks
and are very adept climbers.
Black bears can scramble up a
tree with remarkable ease!
By contrast, black bears are more reclusive animals.
They evolved in the forests where flight behavior
(scrambling up a tree) rather than
confrontation proved to be a more successful
strategy in dealing with humans. Black
bears overall are smaller
and more agile for
climbing than grizzly
bears. This allows
black bears to forage
in dense, hidden areas.
Black bears’ potential life span
may exceed more than 30
years. In New Mexico, bears
have been documented to live
Adult male black bear
20-25 years. In most of their
range where they are hunted
the average life span is about 7-8 years. Their most
frequent causes of death are hunting by humans, predation
by other bears, and their becoming a nuisance by getting
used to human food and subsequently having to be
The black bear is not a threatened or endangered
species in the West. However, because of its
mating habits and reproductive cycle, bear
populations are watched closely. Bear breeding in
New Mexico generally doesn’t begin until an
animal is 5-6 years old, and a female who
successfully raises cubs will mate only once every
two years. For this reason, wildlife management
policies take care to prevent over-hunting of black
bears. In New Mexico, black bears breed between
mid-May and July but give birth in the winter in the
den. The reason is the delayed implantation of the
egg. Though fertilized, the egg remains a cluster of
Young black bear
cells and doesn’t implant itself into the uterine wall until
mid-November. Embryos may not develop at all if the
female doesn’t have enough body fat by the time fall arrives.
Females give birth in January or February with a litter size
of one to two cubs. Newborns are about the size of a mouse
and weigh just six to eight ounces. The newborn bears are
blind and helpless and purr while they nurse. Within a
month, they will weigh between 2-2 1/2 pounds.
Mother bears provide
excellent den care, and
infant mortalities are
rare. By the time they
venture out of the den
in April or May, the
cubs weigh six to
OOD and WATER
We have all seen cartoon bears entering caves to begin their
long winter sleep, but real black bears do not fit this
stereotype. Black bears select a surprisingly small den,
which has one or more openings. The openings are often so
narrow that an adult human would find it difficult to
squeeze through them. In New Mexico, dens are frequently
located under outcroppings of large rocks or tree roots. It is
believed that small dens are chosen for their ability to
conserve heat. Pregnant females den the longest; males
generally the shortest. There is a lot of overlap in the times
when males and females enter and emerge from the dens.
Young independent females and males den alone and may
emerge as early as late March, depending on the weather.
Black bears are not true hibernators but enter a state of
‘torpor’, which is a modified form of hibernation. Though
drowsy and slow to react, a mother bear can still defend
herself and her cubs more effectively than can an animal that
truly hibernates. The black bear’s metabolic and digestive
processes undergo an amazing transformation during its
stay in the den. Rather than excreting, the black bear has
evolved the capacity to reabsorb its waste products and
convert them into useful proteins, water and other nutrients.
Since urination and defecation don’t occur, there is no odor
in the den. This significantly decreases the bear’s chances of
being found by mountain lions, bobcats or coyotes, which
may prey upon bears, especially cubs, in the dens.
Riparian areas are important to black bears. They provide
valuable cover for travel and foraging as well as water for
drinking, fishing and play. On warm days you may be lucky
and see bears wallowing in springs and creeks.
Being omnivorous and opportunistic, black bears have a diet
that varies according to seasonal availability of foods. In
spring, the diet is mostly fresh grasses and forbs, young
succulent shoots, roots, insects and carrion. In summer,
young grasses, forbs, insects, berries and fruit are primary
sources of nourishment. Like humans, bears cannot convert
cellulose into an absorbable form and so the mature plants
and grasses of summer cannot be properly digested. Bears
typically overturn rocks and stumps in search of larval insects,
termites or ants, and may invade yellow-jacket nests. In late
August, bears begin to forage on the foods that enable them to
gain weight rapidly so that they can go through the denning
period without eating. They eat a great deal of acorns, pinon
nuts and juniper berries in the fall to store fat for the
approaching winter. If necessary, they will feed on small
rodents, maggots and anthills. True to popular belief, bears
do sometimes raid commercial beehives to feed on the honey
and larval stages of bees. An occasional bear will also kill
livestock. Males may eat and kill cubs. Such behavior may
not fit our image of Pooh or Smokey, but it does maintain a
balance between population and available habitat and allow
big, dominant males to sire their own cubs more often.
By late fall, if they have access to lots of food, especially
mast crops of oak acorns, pinon nuts and berries, cubs can
tip the scales at 40-70 pounds! Cubs are weaned at about
seven months but remain with their mother until late into
their second spring. Climbing is one of the first and most
important skills the cubs learn. Mothers frequently send
their cubs up trees to insure their safety.
You can find black bears in all forested areas in New
Mexico (14.6 million acres)- and sometimes wandering
far afield from their typical mountain habitat! Females
usually maintain a home range
of five to seven square miles.
Males on an average occupy an
area of 25 square miles,
although they can extend their
territories to as much as 50
square miles if habitat quality
deteriorates. Under ordinary
conditions black bears tend to
avoid each other rather than
engaging in territorial
aggression. A sub-adult female’s territory will overlap
that of her mother’s range. Sub-adult males sometimes
disperse greater distances, which helps maintain the
gene pool by reducing inbreeding. When habitat
becomes limited or degraded, sub-adults may be forced
into marginal areas near human populations. This
‘movement’ of bears has happened several times to
communities near bear habitat. During drought
conditions, as many as 25 sub-adult bears have
wandered into Albuquerque and surrounding
communities in late summer and fall in search of food.
Game protection laws for many big game mammals were
first passed in New Mexico in 1895. Black bears have been
protected as a big game mammal with controlled hunting
regulations since 1927. Since that time, bear habitats across
the state have continued to be developed for many other
uses. Fragmentation and loss of habitat is of concern for the
long term maintenance of healthy bear populations. Bears
that are connected to each other across the landscape allows
populations to maintain a healthy genetic diversity.
During an average year the Department sells 5,000 permits
to hunt bears in the state, with 250-300 bears being
It is essential for wildlife agencies to maintain an accurate
database of bear populations to help balance hunting and
other forms of bear-related recreation (such as chasing bears
with dogs) with competing interests for bears and bear
habitat. To help find this balance, the New Mexico
Department of Game and Fish conducted an 8 year research
project on black bear populations in a hunted and nonhunted study site in the northern and southern parts of the
state. Many important findings from that study have
helped the Department make better management decisions
to ensure healthy bear populations into the future.
Amid the clamor and bustle of an urban Asian
market place, on a street lined with elegant shops, is an
unadorned but conspicuous booth. Surrounded by a
crowd, a vendor hawks an inventory of live mammals
and reptiles, rhino horn, elk antlers and the gall
bladders and paws of bears. The vendor is a link in the
international wildlife trade, the profits of which rival
those of the illicit drug trade. Asian medical lore holds
that particular animal parts possess healing properties.
Medicinal use of these animal parts has caused the
decimation of local and regional animal species. These
parts are destined for Asia as well as to Asian markets in
the U.S. and Canada. Many individuals will pay
exorbitant prices for the opportunity to eat bear paw
soup, which is considered to be an aphrodisiac. Gall
bladders, which are used to treat a variety of ailments,
fetch $2,000 to $3,000 a piece.
To meet the market demand, vendors have begun to
draw upon wildlife populations all over the world. All
Asian bear species are now listed as endangered and
international trade in their parts is banned. So,
suppliers of bear parts have turned increasingly to the
American black bear. New Mexico law prohibits the sale
or barter of the internal organs of bears but 15 other
states allow some sale of bear parts. Without a national
prohibition on trade in bear internal organs, an
interstate and international illicit trade flourishes.
You can tell that a bear has been foraging in an area by
observing overturned rocks and stumps, and torn apart
decaying trees and logs. It is thought that bears may mark
territory by chewing, scratching, and rubbing against trees
and wooden signposts. Look for indentations from teeth or
claws or remnants of fur on posts and trees. Bear ‘trails’ can
be found in solitary bear habitats as well as in areas of high
bear density. The trails are formed because black bears often
step in their own tracks or in the tracks of bears that have
proceeded it. The result is depressions in the foliage if the
trail is used frequently. Tracks may appear in the soil as
well. The most frequent indicator of bear activity is ‘scat’ or
fecal material. Scat content varies from vegetative matter to
acorns, berries, or flesh/hair remains
It is shocking but it is a fact- the majority of bear deaths,
apart from sport hunting, are directly attributable to our
own ignorance, carelessness, laziness or intentional
irresponsibility with food.
As human populations continue to increase and we
encroach further into bear country, we unwittingly create
problems for bears and ourselves. Black bears have a
natural fear of humans. They instinctively avoid us, but
the scent of easily obtained food is irresistible to bears,
especially during periods of food scarcity. A snack left
inside a tent, unwashed dishes at a campsite, pet food on
the porch, garbage in cans, or even a hummingbird feeder
can entice a hungry bear. Normally, black bears do not
attack people unless they are cornered or injured.
However, contact with human food can radically alter bear
behavior. Black bears have been known to invade tents
and smash windshields and ice chests in search of an easy
meal. The intentional baiting of bears with food by
people who want to photograph them or see them up
close is a dangerous, illegal act that often
results in dire consequences. The sad
truth is that if you introduce
human food to a bear it will
not be alive much longer. If
you feed a bear, you kill a
The scenario often
unfolds like this:
During a drought or
summer months when
food is scarce and
plants are indigestible to
bears, they often extend
their range looking for food.
Their keen sense of smell all too often leads them to
human food. Just one meal can transform a
magnificently adapted, independent wild creature into a
human-food junkie! People complain, and conservation
officers initially try to frighten the bear away with rubber
bullets. If the bear is new to human food, this technique
may work. Many other approaches have been tried as well
such as using specially trained breed of dogs to scare bears
away from where humans live. The most effective solution
for individuals is to bring any potential food sources such
as garbage, pet food, bird food etc. in at night into a secure
location. Many communities are now investing in bear-
proof dumpsters and garbage containers and are
experiencing positive results.
Can’t you transplant a “problem” bear?
Yes — and no. Most “problem” bears are young bears,
on their own in the world for the first time. They don’t
yet have their own territory (or they wouldn’t be
wandering, hungry, into a campground). If a yearling
bear tries to move in on another bear’s territory, it’s
immediately chased away or killed by the resident bear.
Our problem, as humans, is trying to find a place to
“take” a problem bear. You can’t take it back to where
it was; it has no territory there, and other bears would
kill or drive it away. You can’t drive 200 miles to
another forest and just “dump”
the bear; the resident bears
there will probably kill it. A
relocated bear will travel
vast distances to find its
way “home.” And once
home, the bear will still
not have a territory, will
resume its nuisance behavior at campgrounds, may
get into trouble with humans,
and face the last and least desirable alternative — being destroyed.
“Couldn’t you take it to a zoo or
People erroneously assume that,
if relocating a bear doesn’t help,
it can just be taken to a zoo. But
most zoos do not need bears;
they are already overloaded
with homeless bears and have
neither the resources nor the funds to take on any
more. When bear territories are shrinking and food is
scarce, there simply is no place for a bear to go.
Remember, when bears start eating human food it
becomes their food of choice and they teach their cubs
about it. Bears can quickly lose their natural fear of
humans and can become very aggressive in their search
ow to Keep Bears and People Safe
Keep your campsite clean, day and night. Wash dishes as soon as possible. Strain food particles
from dishwater and pack them out with your garbage.
Put trash and food in bear-proof containers (such as your vehicle or bear cannisters) or hang it in
a bag with a rope between two trees or from a high tree branch.
Set up your tent 100 yards from cooking areas, if at all possible.
Pack it out! Do not ever bury or burn your garbage. The next group of campers may the encounter
the bears your trash attracted.
Do NOT keep food in your tent (including gum, mint toothpaste, shampoo, baby wipes, which may
smell like food to bears).
Change your clothes after you have cooked. Yes!- Then put the cooking-odor clothes in a bear-proof container or location.
If you take pets or horses, put pet or horse food away (in airtight containers) after the animal has been fed. Keep pets
Garbage – Store it in closed, sturdy cans kept inside a sturdy metal shed or garage. Do not put out garbage the night before
a scheduled pickup. Periodically, clean cans with hot water and bleach.
Pet food – Feed pets indoors. Store food in sturdy metal cans inside a secure shed or garage. Make sure your garage door is
closed at night.
Bird feeders – Set out only enough bird seed to last through the day. Bring in bird seed, suet, and hummingbird feeders at
night. Hang them from wires between trees instead of on your deck or porch.
Clean your barbecue grill after each use. Store them in a closed, secure shed or garage.
Compost piles – Do not put fruit, melon rinds and other tasty items in mulch or compost piles except in winter. Keep them
away from the house.
Fruit trees – Plant fruit trees away from your house. Pick and remove fruit from trees as it ripens and clean up fallen fruit.
Surround beehives, chickens, rabbits etc. with a 5-strand electric fence. Livestock should be kept away from the house.
IF YOU SEE A BEAR
Stay calm. Do NOT run. Chances are the bear is just afraid of you as you might be of it. Move children and pets indoors or
to a vehicle.
If the bear has not seen you, calmly move away and leave the area. As you move away, talk to the bear to let it discover your
presence. A surprised bear is a dangerous bear.
Do NOT approach the bear, back away slowly while facing the bear. Do NOT make any sudden movements.
Look for cubs. Do not come between a mother and her cubs.
Bears often run from humans, but if it feels cornered or threatened, it could attack.
Fight back aggressively if a bear attacks you. Black bear attacks have been driven away when people have fought back with
rocks, sticks, binoculars etc. Spraying cayenne pepper at close range at the face of an attacking bear can stop an attack.
Providing New Mexico
and its wildlife
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish
1 Wildlife Way
Santa Fe, NM 87507
Please visit our web site at: www.wildlife.state.nm.us