NEW MEXICO'S OPERATION BEAR DEN
By Freddi Hetler
Who let the bears out?
Last fall in northern New Mexico it seemed bears were spotted everywhere. They were seen at shopping centers, malls, wandering through neighborhoods, crossing highways, and even inside houses. Unfortunately, when wild creatures venture from their native habitat, it doesn't bode well for them. And it didn't. By the end of the season, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish took 34 injured or orphaned bears to the Wildlife Center in Española for care. Dr. Kathleen Ramsay, the veterinarian who runs the center, states she has never treated more than eight bears in one season before.
So why did the bears come to town? They were starving. By the time fall comes around, bears are supposed to be fattening up for a long winter's nap. To survive, they need a lot of food to put on a lot of weight. Because of a late spring frost that destroyed much of the berries, acorns, and fruit, the bears had to expand their foraging range into places that had food. That meant coming into close proximity to humans and that is always dangerous business.
Most of the bears were transported to the Wildlife Center by Game and Fish, and some by private individuals. One bear was hit and knocked unconscious by a car. The driver put the bear in the backseat of her car and began driving to the Wildlife Center. When the bear began to regain consciousness, the woman realized her mistake and called the Center for help.
Many of the bears were injured by cars as they tried to cross highways. Some bears were mothers who were killed, leaving one or two orphaned cubs. Some were starving cubs. In total, there were 28 orphaned bears this year that were cared for at the Wildlife Center. Every bear brought to the Center had its own story and it's own prescribed care.
With so many young, starving cubs, Dr. Ramsay and her staff had to move quickly. They started IVs and put in feeding tubes. These bears had to be made healthy, then fattened up. Some cubs were so young they had never experienced solid food. She told of a yearling found starving, that weighed a mere five pounds. The bear was in end-stage starvation and could not even open its mouth. After months of work, this bear named Missss War Chief, weighed in at 135 pounds. The success with this one bear speaks volumes about the dedication given her. However, there were many successes and much long, hard work given to all of the bears. The goal was to heal the injured and fatten the starving so each bear had a chance of surviving months of hibernation.
How does one go about finding a suitable place for a young, inexperienced bear to hibernate? New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish came to the rescue. They put out Dogloos (dog igloos) in different places in northern New Mexico and in the Gila Wilderness. The bears had been recuperating in Dogloos at the Wildlife Center and were used to them. The Dogloos received camouflage paint and had branches piled on top.
A bear’s instinct to hibernate and to awake from hibernation is driven by hunger. Once a bear has its weight up, then runs out of food, usually late fall or early winter, it seeks a place to sleep. So the feedings had to stop. According to Dr. Ramsay, it was very hard to just walk past the cubs with their big sad eyes after feeding them 20,000 calories a day. Over a period of three weeks, food was decreased and the supply of hay for denning increased.
On the day the bears were to be driven to their new home, the Center's staff and volunteers had to catch all the cubs and put them into transport carriers without using anesthesia. Dr. Ramsay recalls that it was a lot of fun trying to move 80-pound cubs with only the use of six foot catch poles. The cubs were driven to their new homes. Five went up north on the first release. Two went in one den and three in another. The cubs were darted with a tranquilizer and fitted with ear tags, radio ear tags, and tattoos. Then each bear was weighed, measured, and loaded into a crate for a snowmobile ride to their new homes.
Dr. Ramsay says that so far, so good. The Game and Fish officers check the radio signals weekly. The signals indicate that the bears are still okay.
May is the month that the bears should be emerging from their dens if they had enough weight on them. If they get hungry, they will emerge earlier. Dr. Ramsay fears that many elderly bears will die in their dens because they began hibernation without enough weight. She also feels that this next year's birthrate for bears will be low because the females' weights are too low. According to Dr. Ramsay, we need moisture and a good spring without a late freeze. If we can get that, the bears should do fine.
Freddi Hetler is a writer who lives in Eldorado, south of Santa Fe with her husband, six dogs, and four cats. In her spare time she volunteers for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society.
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