Drought blamed for bear attacks at Scout ranch

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Four campers have been injured this month, but officials don't intend to shut down early

They came to the Philmont National Boy Scout Ranch, in the mountains of northeastern New Mexico, to see the wilderness.

For some scouts, the view was too close for comfort.

In what has become a disturbing trend, black bears descended on Boy Scout campgrounds near Cimarron, N.M., in three separate incidents this month, injuring four scouts.

Driven by heat and hunger, the bears are overcoming their natural fear of humans to search for food, officials said, and that could lead to more encounters.

"What exacerbates the problem are drought conditions," said Luke Shelby, spokesman for the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. "It has a real negative impact on their food production."

But leaders at the Boy Scout-owned ranch – which attracts scout groups from the Dallas area and around the country – aren't worried about the hungry creatures, asserting that the organization has procedures to deal with bears.

The most recent attack came in the early morning of July 15, when a bear wandered onto a campsite and bit a sleeping Boy Scout on his foot. Later that morning, the same bear attacked two campers who had trespassed into the Boy Scouts' facility, scratching one.

With state officials' approval, the bear was eventually tracked down and destroyed. No campers have been seriously injured.

Between 5,500 and 6,000 bears reside in the mountainous terrain around New Mexico. The number has increased in recent years, Mr. Shelby said.

"They are not harmless, and at the same time, they are not predators of man, either," he said. "Chances are, if you see a bear ... it's going to be running away from you."

In two previous attacks, a radio-collared black bear scratched and bit a Boy Scout after it rolled into a tent, and another bear scratched two scouts at a campground near Mount Phillips.

The rash of incidents marks the first time in 14 years that bears have threatened campers at the 137,000-acre ranch, said Mark Anderson, the camp's director of programs.

"We're very hesitant to use the word 'attack' because it's been the activity of the bears to search for food," Mr. Anderson said. "We, the humans, happen to be in the way. There was never any vicious assault by the bears."

Mr. Anderson said the scouts take preventive measures to avoid attracting bears, including hanging food and odorous objects in a "bear bag" about 15 feet off the ground and burying wastewater underground.

"We also stress three distinct activities: You camp in one spot, you cook in another spot, and you hang your 'smellables' in another," he said. "We usually have about 25 to 30 feet or more between areas."

Camp officials don't intend to shut down the ranch early or change schedules because of the incident, Mr. Anderson said. About 21,000 Boy Scouts visit the campgrounds annually.

In the southwest and around the rest of the country, bear activity has been on the rise.

Bears have been spotted interrupting barbecues in Ohio and ransacking kitchens around the Northeast, in areas where the North American black bear had been in decline for more than 100 years.

In New Mexico, the numbers have been more stable. But just this week in Bernadillo, N.M., authorities captured a bear roaming near the local high school. It was the fourth caught in the Albuquerque area in the last two weeks.

Bear families tend to break up during summer months, traveling long distances and leading to an increase in human encounters, said Mr. Shelby, the state game department spokesman.

That, compounded with the fact that pinion nuts and acorns – a key food source – have yet to bloom, makes this time of year difficult for the animals, he said.

If bears are caught snooping for food around wildlife campgrounds, they are either chased away or relocated, Mr. Shelby said. The ones brazen enough to attack, such as at Philmont, have been shot instead.

Situations like those are unfortunate for the bears but probably justifiable, said officials with the Humane Society of the United States in Maryland.

"There are other methods, but generally there's a no-tolerance policy once the bears have made human contact," said John Hadidian, director of the Urban Wildlife Program for the Humane Society.

Long periods of drought can lead to conflicts, Mr. Hadidian said, and individuals should be aware of the increased threat of bear encounters.

"It would be really important to bring in all of the respondents in this kind of situation," he said. "I would start by saying you must educate everyone that comes into bear country as to what to avoid, how to handle themselves, and how to limit conflicts with bears."

John Thurston, a Boy Scouts executive leader in South Texas, said several scout troops in his area recently returned from a trip to Philmont. The scouts, he said, were encouraged to view and respect the wildlife.

"There's bears, mountain lions, deer, and all kinds of wildlife," said Mr. Thurston, a scout executive with the Boy Scouts' Gulf Coast Council. "Hopefully, you're going to encounter some of that."

Mr. Thurston, who oversees about 125 Boy Scout troops around Corpus Christi, said people are ignoring one positive aspect of the recent bear encounters.

"The marvelous thing is with the thousands and thousands of kids in a wilderness area, it's so unusual when there is a problem," he said.