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Bears, Oh My!

With bear encounters on the increase, here's what you need to know if you, too, get an ursine visitor.


My wife Jeri was standing on the back porch as Blue, our cat, raced by her and into the house where I was a-settin' in the living room; his hair was standing straight out all over his body, as well as his erect tail, and his eyes were open wide with a wild look in them.

He furtively gazed back the way he had just come and I instinctively knew some critter had been after him. I chuckled at the scene, then went to see if it was a stray dog or two or a gray fox that had put the "fear of the Lord" into Blue.

Walking down off the porch, I then spied a large, black critter walking slowly down the wash just below the house. "Was that a young steer that I saw?" I asked myself, but I already knew that it wasn't.

Sprinting into the house and grabbing my binoculars, I excitedly exclaimed to my missus, "There's a bear out there!"

We both sneaked off the porch as the bruin ambled up to our watering trough, not 20 yards away. It immediately put down a gallon of liquid in about 30 seconds, then turned its head to peer up at the two of us.

I was watching back through the 8x32s, admiring each and every detail of the magnificent beast: black, glossy hair, chocolate-brown face, soft, almost gentle eyes. It appeared to be lean and mean and not going much over between 150 to 200 pounds.

As soon as it saw us, it darted down into the gully and headed back the way it had come. We spotted it intermittently as it ambled through clearings and finally out of sight.

Quickly I made my way to the sand to check for tracks, and they confirmed by size that it was about the weight I reckoned. Dark-fall was almost upon me, so I decided to wait for morning light to follow its spoor.

I was excited! Mixed emotions flooded my mind and body. On the one hand I wanted it to "localize" near my digs, yet I knew the potential for destruction and harm and danger would come along with that localization; a bear accustomed to humans is a bad thing for all involved.

First thing that night I called the Game and Fish boys and gave them a heads-up on the incident and allowed that I might need a culvert trap in the near future.

The second thing I did was e-mail my editor at Bear Hunting magazine, since he is a kindred spirit and I knew that he'd appreciate the story (he did).

Sadly, I never saw the bear again because it was hit on Hwy. 180 the next day. The district game officer confirmed it had weighed 200 pounds.

Bears are, and will be, on the move this summer since we are experiencing a very dry period in our weather (at least we are as of early June). That means the critters are in search of easy food and water as they wander far and wide.

District Game Officer Leon Redman gave me this advice to pass on to you all: Do not leave bird, dog or cat food out all day. Once the critters have eaten (birds feed most at first light and last light—figure an hour for each feeding), remove the temptation. Also hide garbage somewhere "bear proof" in a shed or garage.

And what if you do have an up-close-and-personal encounter with a bear?

Redman says:

  1. Grab the kids and pets first so they don't go running away, exacerbating a chance for attack.

  2. Stand erect and wave your arms and clothing to make yourself appear bigger.

  3. Talk loudly but calmly.

  4. Back slowly away.

  5. Then call the game warden. (In the Silver City area, the local number is 534-4023; in Las Cruces, it's 532-2100.)

If all of the above doesn't work and the bear actually attacks, then fight it with all of your might. Kick, scream, punch and poke (a bear's eyes and nose are very sensitive). What you don't wanna do with a black bear is lie there in a fetal position and be passive; that works only with grizzly and brown bears!

As I've already said, it is now the first week in June, and three bear-people incidents have occurred in the Grant County region alone thus far besides mine. All of the others involved ranches and cattle killings. One was down in the southern Burros, one out on the Mimbres, and the last over towards Alma. In late May, a young, 125-pound male black bear that had traveled a great distance to Las Cruces in search of food was captured and returned to the Gila National Forest

More such encounters are sure to occur if the weather and attendant food supply don't improve, and you can be assured that people and bears will come into close contact. It is imperative that anybody who spots a bear where it shouldn't be report it, so that the Department of Game and Fish can capture it and move it far away.

By the way, the sad fact is that most bears will travel back to where they were captured, since they will have probably been put into another bear's territory. If it is a young bear, it will be attacked and driven off or killed by the owner of that territory.

The last bear that I killed, a huge blonde boar of 13 years of age, had a horrific scar on its nose and lip from fighting. Since it had originally been tagged and collared, I was able to find out that it had traveled over 60 air-miles from where it had been tagged 10 years prior—so they do and can travel long distances.

I know they look cute and cuddly and are exciting to see in the backyard, but if they stay, it will mean nothing but trouble for them and you! This ain't no Teddy Bear or even a Smokey Bear! A word to the wise, ya know.

As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may the Forever God bless you out there!


The Bear Facts

More advice from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish on how to avoid unwanted bear encounters:

At home:

  • Remove bird feeders. Bears see them as sweet treats, and often they will look for other food sources nearby.

  • Keep garbage in airtight containers inside your garage or storage area. Place garbage outside in the morning just before pickup, not the night before. Occasionally clean cans with ammonia or bleach.

  • Never put meat or sweet-smelling food scraps such as melon in your compost pile.

  • Don't leave pet food or food dishes outdoors at night.

  • Clean and store outdoor grills after use. Bears can smell sweet barbecue sauce and grease for miles.

  • Never intentionally feed bears to attract them for viewing. If you intentionally feed a bear and the bear becomes a nuisance, you could be cited and fined up to $500—and the bear eventually may have to be killed.


In camp:

  • Keep your camp clean, and store food and garbage properly at all times. Use bear-proof containers when available. If not, suspend food, coolers and garbage from a tree—at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet out from the tree trunk.

  • Keep your tent and sleeping bag free of all food smells. Store the clothes you wore while cooking or eating with your food.

  • Sleep a good distance from your cooking area or food storage site.

  • Store toiletries with your food.


Larry Lightner writes Ramblin' Outdoors
exclusively for Desert Exposure.

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