Bears In Phoenix
The greater Phoenix metropolitan area is no longer situated adjacent to bear country, it has become bear country even if just in a marginal sense.

Arizona Game and Fish biologists estimate that since August 11, there have been 13 bears in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. Game and Fish biologists have captured six bruins. That has resulted in five being relocated, one being destroyed, and one cub being held for rehabilitation until a spring release. At least two other bears have been killed by cars. Some bears have apparently scooted back to the wilds after their taste of human civilization.

Typically, there might be one or two bears coming into urban-wildland fringe areas of Phoenix every few years, mostly in the late spring. This is anything but a typical year. While this urban bear barrage was not expected, for many wildlife biologists it's not that surprising either.

Research biologist Stan Cunningham pointed out that prime bear country is just a short bear-jaunt away from Phoenix. Due to prolonged drought, that prime bear country lacks food. "Bears can easily cover 30 or 40 miles in a night, and the edge of the greater Phoenix area is only 10 or 15 miles from some prime bear country."

Cunningham is conducting a research project in the Four Peaks area, which is just a short bear walk from the Phoenix environs. Cunningham has documented some of the highest black bear densities in North America while doing the research, which entails looking at the effects on all wildlife species from the Four Peaks Fire four years ago.

"Right now, the mast — which is berries, nuts and other fruit-like food sources — is terrible. Even the prickly pears are thin and lacking in fruit. These are some of the worst conditions I have seen in my 17 years with Game and Fish. I have even had radio-collared deer and coyotes dying of starvation," the veteran wildlife researcher said.

The irony may be that the late summer rains actually resulted in making the lowlands more accessible to bears. "Having dispersed water sources available has meant that bears could go searching for food over a broader territory. I doubt that the bears are coming into Phoenix out of choice, they are simply seeking food and keep going over that next hill and the next until they end up in the lowlands, and that's where we happen to live," Cunningham explained.

Although even 30-year veteran biologists with Game and Fish cannot recall ever having this many bears come into the desert lowlands, this might not be such a new situation.

Game and Fish field supervisor Pat Crouch pointed out that 15 or 20 years ago there were thousands upon thousands of undeveloped acres sitting as a buffer between Valley cities and prime bear country. "Bears may have come down to the lowlands in greater numbers during past droughts without us knowing about it. This time, though, they are running smack into expanded human development and stick out like a sore thumb," Crouch explained.

No matter what might or might not have occurred in the past, the present situation is unusual and a little daunting. "We may have to borrow some more bear capture equipment from our Pinetop and Flagstaff regions. This is getting a little crazy," said Crouch.

And those regions might not be able to provide much help — they also need the equipment. This year, department biologists throughout the state have handled nearly 60 bears. Problem bear calls from high country population centers and even campgrounds have kept wildlife officers busy since early spring, with no relief in sight. There have even been bears in campgrounds near Roosevelt Lake.

"The number of bears handled seems to grow daily and we have been scrambling to meet each need as it arises, so we haven't done a good job this year of keeping a running tally. What we do know is this has shaped into a record bear problem year, and there are no signs that it is going to get better any time real soon," said Pat O'Brien, the administrative assistant to Game and Fish director Duane Shroufe.

Cunningham echoed O'Brien's prediction. "Some media have asked whether the Valley's bear visitation trend will diminish once cooler weather arrives. While we hope that is the case, I am not optimistic. If the cooler weather is not preceded or accompanied by rains, we may actually see more bears. They need to put on some fat before going into winter hibernation," Cunningham said.

Having a record number of bears in the lowlands during a record heat wave makes the situation even more unusual. Bears have thick hides and heavy fur.

"Usually, bears also have a thick layer of fat — but that seems to be missing this year for the bears we are handling in the Phoenix area. Due to their thick hide and dense black fur, they are definitely not adapted to the hot desert. Bears suffer tremendously in the heat. Believe me, they are not coming into the hot desert because they want to — it's all food related," Cunningham explained.

Once cooler weather arrives, however, even more bears could possibly head to the lowlands in search of food. "That's just biological speculation on my part, but it's something we need to consider. It's especially important for the public to realize what is happening so they can act accordingly to avoid bear conflicts when possible," Cunningham said.

Biologists advise the public to avoid contact with bears. "Seeing a bear is a treat. It really is. But people need to realize these are powerful animals and even a cub could cause a person harm should that person come into conflict with the animal," said Cunningham.

Also keep in mind that these animals are desperate and can be especially dangerous when frightened or cornered — so keep your distance. "Don't try to get up close with your 'Instamatic' or you might end up on the nightly news wearing a hospital gown. Watch the bears. Enjoy them. But keep your distance. Stay in your home, car or whatever. Don't put yourself or the bear in jeopardy. And definitely don't intentionally feed bears," he said.

O'Brien emphasized that "a fed bear is often a dead bear." He explained that when people intentionally feed bears, the bears start relying on people for food and lose their fear of humans.

"Once that happens, it's just a matter of time until the bear comes into conflict with humans and has to be destroyed. It might be the human's fault, but the bear pays the ultimate penalty. Don't put you, your family, your neighbors and the bears in jeopardy — just don't feed bears, period," O'Brien said.

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