By Beth Meyer • Photos by Beth Meyer
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in late September, a group of citizen scientists, community groups, and representatives from several city, county, and state wildlife organizations gathered to host the Sandia Mountain Bear Fair at the Doc Long Picnic Area. These groups are all partners in the Sandia Mountain Bear Collaborative (SMBC), whose mission is to educate the public about peacefully coexisting with bears and other wildlife in the area. Samples of animal scat, seeds and fragments recovered from the scat, molds of animal footprints, and other wildlife displays were laid out across the picnic tables.
Stephanie Long, a co-founder of SMBC, spoke at the Bear Fair about how the organization came about and why she believes it is crucial to educate the public about wildlife in our area. “Everything in wildlife is interconnected,” Long said to the attendees. “The Sandias are like an island for wildlife surrounded by people on all sides.” Long and Elaine Sweeney, another SMBC member, also discussed the need for more research and outreach to the community.
“Since animals are always in search of a source for food and water and as their habitats keep shrinking, their interactions with humans keeps rising,” says Rick Winslow, a bear biologist with New Mexico Game and Fish. “This ends up becoming a higher mortality rate for bears, especially during drought years.”
The experiences that would eventually lead to the establishment of SMBC go back to 2010. That year, Long, who has always had a passionate interest in wildlife, jumped at the opportunity to take a national course in the Master Naturalist Program, which was offered for the first time by Bernalillo County. The three-month-long course included classes in “all the ‘ologies,” including biology and geology, and combined exploratory hikes in the mountains with classroom training and education. In exchange, students agree to complete a 40-hour community service project of their choice and commit themselves to lifelong nature education thereafter.
Because she had recently moved from Albuquerque to the East Mountains, Long chose black bears as her project. As an herbalist, she was particularly interested in the plant seeds and fragments she discovered in bear scat and wanted to track the bears’ footprints to learn more about their diet, habitat, and how far they ranged in search of food. “I became so involved in my project that I went bear crazy!” she says, laughing. She continued to study and research on her own for the next three years but wanted to learn more and do real science-based research.
She also wanted to branch out further and involve more wildlife organizations and like-minded people. In 2013, the U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico Game and Fish, Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, Bernalillo County Open Space, and ABQ Open Space agreed to coordinate resources, and the Sandia Mountain Bear Collaborative was officially established. The idea was to become more inclusive and to combine resources, research, and information, rather than to represent a particular point of view. The SMBC currently has 15 participating organizations as partners.
From the early stages of her own project, Long’s secondary goal has been education and sharing what she has learned with others. When SMBC was formed, the members agreed on the importance of providing accurate, researched-based education. They learned early on that it’s easier to educate young students and encourage them to teach their parents, rather than try to convince adults to change old, sometimes unsafe habits. To that end, in 2017, SMBC contacted Jason Roback, science teacher at Sandia High School, to propose a research project in collaboration with his AP Environmental Science students, (otherwise known as the “Sandia Apes”) in which the students would analyze bear scat found in the Sandia Mountains in order to learn about the animals’ diet, habitat, range, and behavior.
Three times during each school year, Long, Winslow, and other SMBC members bring frozen bear scat samples into the Sandia classroom. The students are divided into groups to analyze each sample for identifiable food items following a scientific method that includes noting the condition and appearance of each sample, weighing it with a digital scale, rinsing the scat through sieves, measuring the volume, and completing a scat analysis form. The seeds are saved for a seed library, later research, or emptied into compost buckets for planting in the school greenhouse. The long-range goal is to learn how the germinated seedlings can be used to restore burned areas of forest.
Roback, an East Mountain resident, says, “We cover this material in the class anyway, and instead of just doing paperwork, the kids have a chance to do actual science.” The students have become very involved in the class and some have encouraged friends and siblings to take it as well. One measure of the success of the class has been a poster assignment depicting native animal and plant food webs. “Before the scat analysis project started, we would only have one or two posters about a bear’s diet,” Roback says. “The very next year, there were at least 20.”
Students were surprised at the wide variance in appearance from sample to sample, depending on the time of year, where the scat was found, and what the bear had eaten. During one two-hour class, the groups discovered a wildflower called, fittingly, bear corn, along with grasses, sumac berries, prickly pear cactus, and insect fragments. “Once you get past the idea of digging through bear poop, it’s really interesting,” says one of Roback’s students.
The students learned that bears are omnivores and will also feed on rodents and small mammals whose bones are not well developed. One group found fawn hooves, bone fragments, and hair in their sample, which caused one student to whisper about the discovery, “Aahh, poor baby.”
The class was also shown one scat sample that was mostly plastic and candy wrappers, even more proof that a hungry bear will eat almost anything. “This example was very impactful for the students,” Sweeney says. “It showed them just how desperate a hungry bear can become and the affect human behavior has on wildlife.”
The students have additional opportunities to gain firsthand knowledge about the habitat, food sources, and behavior of bears and other wildlife by participating in volunteer afterschool outings in the Sandia Mountains with SMBC members and bear biologists. “It becomes less abstract when they can hunt for the scat, discover the food sources, and find it in the animals’ natural habitat,” says Winslow.
The dedicated citizen scientists and wildlife professionals of SMBC believe that offering students this unique opportunity will ensure a better future for human-wildlife interaction and peaceful co-existence. And, says Roback, “It will hopefully inspire some future research scientists, environmentalists, and wildlife professionals to choose this important work as a career.”
For more information see
Sandianountainbearcollaborative.org, check out their Facebook page, or contact Stephanie Long at 505-286-0574.