Unprecedented year for urban bear sightings

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

PHOENIX (AP) -- Bears have left Arizona's mountains and headed for the cities, drinking from swimming pools and hanging from trees in the booming suburbs that are pressing closer to the animals' homes.

Those dual forces are making this what Arizona Game and Fish officials call an unprecedented year of bear sightings across the state. They estimate that the department physically removed more than 50 bears this year, about three times the normal rate.

''A hungry animal will do anything and that's why they're moving into town,'' said Stan Cunningham, research biologist for Game and Fish. ''They're just moving around and Phoenix just happens to be in the way.''

Ten bears have been sighted in the Phoenix-area within the past month alone. On one July day in eastern Arizona, Game and Fish trapped and relocated five bears.

The oddity doesn't end there. Because of recent storms, puddles of water have allowed the bears to travel farther into the desert to areas that haven't seen a bear in years, like the booming Phoenix suburb of Chandler or Central Arizona's Casa Grande.

What they're looking for is nourishment, something that is sorely lacking in the mountain areas. Normally accustomed to eating acorns and berries, the low rainfall has forced the bears to rely solely on prickly pears, which now provide little aid.

So they've focused their appetite on garbage or bird feed or -- as was the case this month -- an Apache Junction swimming pool.

Game and Fish spokesman Pat O'Brien cites a story of a man who found paw prints on his couch, where a bear was apparently sitting and eating leftover food. Another past incident occurred when a bear's keen sense of smell led him to chew through the side of a cabin to get to food.

O'Brien said people should not turn and run, but instead should look a bear straight in the eye and make lots of noise. He encourages people not to feed animals and not to leave food outside.

Therein lies much of the danger with the bear migration. Once they lose their fear of humans, they become increasingly dangerous. Colorado's Division of Wildlife has killed about 100 bears this summer due to their constant interaction with city life, a huge problem in the Aspen community.

Thus far, Game and Fish officials have killed at least 10 bears this year but did release a bear found in Chandler to a forest near Prescott Wednesday.

Cunningham said it is difficult to place a drugged bear back in the wild where it might be shot by hunters. The drugs would take days to dissipate and its meat would be dangerous to eat. More land is now available for relocation because bear hunting season ended Wednesday.

That leaves about a one-month period before hibernation begins in mid-October.

''Can we expect to see more bears?'' O'Brien asked. ''There's a good probability we will.''


On the Net:

Arizona Game and Fish Department: http://www.gf.state.az.us/

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