One Tough Mama
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger - Albuquerque Journal
Nov 4, 2011
It’s that time when things start tumbling off the edge, when we throw up our hands, raise the white flag, scream, run, hide, when we look at our lives and think, no, this is not what we had in mind.
That time when we are just too tired to find our bootstraps, our big boy/girl pants, our determination, our gumption.
That time when hanging tough can be such a bear.
A big black mama bear.
And that’s the time to think about that bear.
Because if you want to learn something about tenacity and the will to keep on keeping on in spite of everything, you need to hear the story of Bear No. 56.
In reality, she is more brown than black in color, probably 14 years old. She’s called Bear No. 56 because that’s the number on the ear tag she’s worn since 2002 when the state Game and Fish Department relocated her for the second of five times from an East Mountain neighborhood.
Which just happens to be my neighborhood.
Bear No. 56 (who was Bear No. 770 until that tag from her first relocation came off along with a chunk of ear) has become something of a legend since her photo appeared in the Durango Herald last summer.
Bear photos are fairly common in high-country publications, but not like this one, taken by Mark Meier, a retiree from Arboles, Colo., during a fishing trip on Navajo Lake, a massive reservoir spanning 35 miles across the border between Colorado and New Mexico.
Bear No. 56 ferries her cub across a one-mile stretch of Navajo Lake this summer. It was the first time she had been sighted since she caused a commotion nine years ago in a neighborhood south of Tijeras, more than 200 miles away.
He was boating in Uells Canyon on the New Mexico side of the lake when he saw something brown and furry churning in the glassy green water.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said. “I thought maybe it was a large bird, a deer.”
He motored closer until he could make out a mama bear ferrying her cub on her back as she swam across the mile-wide expanse of water.
“I got maybe 40, 50 feet away and noticed she was getting irritated and was turning directions,” he said.
Meier grabbed his camera.
Later, after moving to a safer distance, he grabbed his binoculars and watched her and the cub make it safely to shore and pad across the beach into the rugged reaches of the Carson National Forest.
Meier hadn’t caught any fish that day, but what he caught with his camera was a beauty.
“I looked at the pictures when I got home and thought, I need to share them,” he said.
The story with two of his photos — one that showed the No. 56 tag — was published Aug. 5 in the Herald, and the calls started coming in from TV stations, biologists and other folks wanting to know more about the bear.
“But I didn’t know anything more about her other than her tag number,” he said.
Because of that tag, one of the callers did.
Dan Williams of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish knew his department uses green ear tags to mark bears relocated after straying too close to human habitation.
He could also tell the girl had gotten around.
“With a rap sheet as long as her arm, Bear No. 56 compiled a travel log stretching more than 200 miles,” he wrote in this month’s New Mexico Wildlife, the department publication, which was distributed in Monday’s Journal.
She was born in the Sandia Mountains, he said, but her innate wanderlust, fearlessness and taste for the finer cuisine found in bird feeders, trash cans, dog dishes and chicken coops lured her repeatedly to my neck of the woods on Raven Road, south of Tijeras and east of Cibola National Forest.
In the fall of 2002, when most bears were busy gorging on berries in preparation for their long winter’s nap, Bear No. 56 was making dinner plans with my unsuspecting neighbors.
In October that year, she was tranquilized four times and trundled off to more remote forest locations, he said. Once, she was fitted with a radio collar as part of a bear-tracking study. But she made quick work of the vinyl collar, leaving its remnants on the porch of a Raven Road resident two weeks later.
Each time she was driven out, she stubbornly stormed back, apparently unaware she had overstayed her welcome.
That was until Oct. 26, when she was shot out of a tree with a tranquilizer gun and hauled away to the Zuni Mountains, about 100 miles west.
That she had so many encounters is remarkable. Most bears that dare to hang out with humans are put down after the third encounter.
No one knows why Bear No. 56 avoided that fate.
And no one knows how, nine years later, she resurfaced at Navajo Lake, about 150 miles, an interstate and at least three other highways north of the Zuni Mountains.
According to the North American Bear Center, the average female black bear travels no more than six miles from home, while average males go out as far as 15 miles; one bear is known to have logged a record 126-mile trek.
But this girl is clearly smarter than the average bear. And stubborn.
And though we may not have wanted her so close to us on Raven Road, it’s encouraging to know that somehow she has survived, that she is out there somewhere swimming, hanging tough in these times when that’s harder to do.
And maybe that means we can, too.
Photo of mom and cub: http://www.abqjournal.com/main/2011/11/04/news/one-tough-mama.html/attachment/a01_jd_04nov_bear1_cmyk