In some of those long evening coffee breaks at the staff cabins we got a better perspective on the current problem. Mainly it is the limitation of the natural food supply due to an extended drought that has attracted the bears to camp areas. Understanding the relationship of territorial and age factors of bears gives campers a better understanding of how to avoid problems any why certain procedures must be followed.
Many streams were not running and many ponds we saw were low or dry. Philmont has been forced to drill new wells and in some cases actually truck water to camps in a military "water buffalo" to keep at least minimum water available at considerable expense. This illustrates the magnitude of the current water problem.
As it was explained to us, the problem is not with the older bears. The older and larger bears have staked out their territory far from humans and they are generally not the problem and usually not seen. The younger bears are usually the ones sighted around the camps and consist of the juveniles who are now out on their own for the first time. Since they are the new kids, they have not established a regular territory and stay where there is inviting smells. Like teenagers, they will try almost anything explaining why a bear will go after a first aid kit or film even though it has no food value. They bite it and investigate it based on the attractive odor hoping it's a goody. Some bears even recognize the profile of a nalgene bottle and bite it looking for drink mix.
When a bear does find something to eat in the middle of all these smells, they now associate the smells with a probability of finding food and get bolder in their search. Bears generally don't want a confrontation with humans but hunger and the probability of finding food push them to bolder actions and occasionally, camper injuries.
Philmont biologists do tranquilize and place a yellow ear tag on each bear they can find and know pretty much each bear's territory. Its was not uncommon to see a bear with an ear tag. A bear with 2 tags has been identified as a potential problem due to his past actions and for lack of a better term is on a "watch list." If you are close enough to clearly read the ear tag, you are waaaay too close.
Unfortunately, all it takes is a few thoughtless campers to leave food out or worse yet, intentionally bait a bear in hopes of getting a picture. Once a bear associates humans with being fed it will inevitably result in a problem bear that will have to be relocated (once) and shot if it returns. All bears that harm a camper, even accidentally, are hunted and shot. Any camper that intentionally leaves food for a bear will be responsible for having their entire crew taken off trail and sent home, their troop banned from returning in the future, and may be arrested under New Mexico law. They don't play games on this one for good reason.
The proper mindset should start in the training process long before a crew arrives at Philmont. I had to untrain our guys out of the bad habits learned in years of camporees of leaving trash at ground level, keeping food in tents, and disposing of wash water in the bushes. For our training I brought a coffee can with a screen on top just like the sump found in Philmont camps. We practiced using the sump for all water and cleaning the screen after. Where practical we also hoisted the food and packaged the garbage just like Philmont. I'm sure some of the boys thought this was excessive until they spotted their first sow with a cub at Philmont and suddenly realized that only careful practices will prevent a confrontation with a 250 pound bear. (Actually I wish I had taken a picture of the look on their faces instead of the bear.)
Along with the bears are mountain lions. As one staffer put it, if you see a lion on a ledge, consider yourself lucky. If you see one up close, consider yourself in trouble. So far the only encounters with mountain lions I am aware of is reports of lions tracking lone rangers walking back to base camp. They apparently size up a lone walker and evaluate their chances. One incident I was told about, the lion got close enough to take a swipe at a ranger's shoe. A large crew is far too big and noisy for a lion to consider. The only incidents with the mountain lions have been the loss or attack of livestock at the homesteading camps where pigs or sheep are kept. One lion being so bold as to attack a pig while campers were in close proximity to the pen.
To put it in a bit of perspective, thousands of campers walk through Philmont each year incident free. Wildlife is just one of many safety issues that must be addressed. You are visiting their home and should respect it as a guest should respect your home. If a crew is properly trained before you arrive and always follow the bear procedures throughout the entire trek, you will not be bothered by the bears and will do nothing to help create a problem bear. This is in essence, one aspect of No Trace Camping.
Joe Schlau Schaumburg, IL
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