The bear wasn’t especially large, and he seemed as startled as we were. It was a Sunday afternoon in July, and we were driving home from brunch. We interrupted him as he was about to cross the road.
We stopped to watch him from inside the car at a safe distance. He sized us up as I fumbled with my suddenly uncooperative cellphone camera. Once he decided we didn’t pose an immediate threat, he continued on his way, ambling uphill across a neighbor’s driveway toward the mountains. It was my first bear sighting in almost 25 years of living on the outskirts of Santa Fe.
This is the time of year when bears wander our forested neighborhoods, sometimes making it all the way into town looking for food and water. We humans, whether we realize it or not, are quite obliging, providing meals that bears crave. Bird feeders overflowing with seeds, bags of pet food stored on a portal, trash bins filled with food scraps. But it’s also our fruit trees. Apples, cherries, peaches. All are tasty to a bear trying to pack on the pounds before hibernation.
Although I had never actually seen a bear in my neighborhood before my July encounter, it was by no means the first time I recognized their presence near my house. Years ago, I found my suet bird cages on the ground mangled. It was a surprise to discover I shared my backyard with a bear. When I called the state Department of Game and Fish, the wildlife officer I spoke to was firm: Put the bird food away and don’t set the trash out until the morning of pickup. I took his advice and haven’t had any problems with bears since. That doesn’t mean they don’t still pass through. I sometimes catch them on my remote camera or find scat. But if I don’t leave anything out that they can get into, they don’t stick around.
The good news this summer is we have had a strong monsoon season. I spoke to Tristanna Bickford at Game and Fish a few weeks ago, and she said the acorn crop in the mountains is abundant. Bears can find lots of food without venturing into town, where things can quickly go bad for them and result in relocation or euthanasia. So far this season, according to Bickford, bear nuisance reports have been about normal.
The sad news is that a mother bear was struck by a vehicle near DeVargas Center in early September. The injured bear walked a mile away from town before dying, leaving her two cubs to fend for themselves. One has been caught, but the other is still out there, fending for itself.
Bears scare and thrill me in equal parts. This time of year, I am always cautious when I step outside. I make noise. And I remind myself not to panic if I happen to come upon one — to back away slowly and give the bear room to move on.
As for my bird feeders, I’ll wait until Halloween or later to put them out — after the bears have hibernated.