Friday, July 27, 2007

Ariz. run-ins with cougars, bears caused by drought, disharmony

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

BERLAND LAKE, Ariz., July 26, 2007

Outside the small log cabin high up on Narbona Pass smoke gently rose from the stovepipe.

The land around the cabin was covered with green vegetation and wildflowers. For miles, the only sounds were the bleating of sheep and goats and the tinkling of their bells.

But this picture of serenity belied the havoc that reigned a few days earlier, when an adult red bear slaughtered and ate eight sheep and lambs over a three-day period.

Alvin Allen, who built the cabin for his parents, said the livestock had belonged to his paternal grandmother, Rose Mike, of Toadlena, N.M.

She doesn't usually keep her animals at his family's summer camp, he added, but this summer she asked permission to graze her animals there, high above the drought-bleached plains of eastern New Mexico.

He pointed to a corral behind the cabin and said the sheep and goats there belong to his elderly parents, John and Christine. His grandmother had taken her remaining livestock - 55 in all - back to Toadlena after the attacks.

Farther away, almost hidden among tall pines, was another corral. That's where the bear attacked first on July 11, killing four sheep and lambs, Allen said. After that attack, the livestock were moved to a corral much closer to the cabin.

The bear returned two days later, on July 13, killing four more animals and ravaging the carcasses of his first victims.

Two days after that, tribal ranger Mike Deswood returned with some non-Indian hunters who tracked down the bear with dogs and killed it on July 15.

In the Navajo way, it is forbidden to kill a bear because they lend their power to aid humans in the Protection Way ceremony.

Decade of drought

Allen said it had been so long since he'd heard of a bear attack that he could not remember how many years ago it was.

But over the past 10 years, he said, rain has continuously decreased in the once-lush high country around the cabin. Allen pointed to a dam across a small stream, designed to channel water into two stock ponds.

His father built the dam, he said, and he and his siblings would jump off that dam into 14 feet of water.

If they jumped off it today, they would hit dirt.

Alvin sighed and said the bear probably attacked his grandmother's livestock because it was hungry.

In a separate interview July 18, tribal Fish and Wildlife Director Gloria Tom agreed.

Bears usually avoid humans, but Tom said they are attacking livestock because the drought has made their usual foods, like berries and acorns, scarce.

The attack at the Allen camp may be the worst incident so far, but Tom said her department has received many calls this summer about bears being sighted near residential areas or attacking livestock.

One bear was seen roving around the old Mustang gas station in Navajo, N.M., about 15 miles south of the Allen camp.

Tom said that in one week, she received three calls about bear attacks on livestock in the Narbona Pass and Chuska Mountain areas. Further to the west, mountain lion attacks are also being reported, she said.

"They're out and they're wandering - looking for food," Tom said. "But to this day, there have been no major conflicts with humans."

Tom emphasized that people should stay clear of a bear if they see one, because the bears are under stress from the drought and their behavior is not normal.

Harry Walters, curator for the Diné College Museum, agreed that people should avoid contact with bears.

"These animals are powerful," Walters said, speaking of their physical and spiritual properties.

He explained that the bear and mountain lion play a role in the Protection Way ceremony, which confers protection from evil.

Tom added, "By their own nature, they have their own domain and they stay away from people."

Sending a signal

When bears or mountain lions venture into residential areas it means something is not right, Walters said.

Under normal conditions, if a bear or mountain lion bothers a human dwelling, it could signal that someone in the house has transgressed against something or someone, he explained.

He said that's usually when people should consult a Navajo crystal gazer, who acts as a diagnostician.

In the present situation, however, the multiple sightings and attacks are the animals' way of saying they know society - as a whole - is doing something wrong, Walters said.

"Nature does not normally act this way," Walters said. "What is causing the drought? What are we doing wrong?

"In many cases, humans are usually to blame," he said. "Maybe power plants or humans are infringing on their habitats. So those are some of the things we must ask ourselves."

A couple of years ago, a bear killed 40 sheep in the St. Michaels summit area west of Window Rock, Tom said.

"There are certain instances when one bear goes crazy and kills everything in sight," he said.

Tom advised people living or camping in the mountains to keep their surroundings clean, leaving no food out including dog food.

Many times when bears are sighted in residential areas or have attacked livestock, Fish and Wildlife officials find that the bear was attracted by dog food, garbage or food left out in the open, Tom said.

"Of course, once they develop the habit of killing livestock, they're doomed," she sighed.

Tom said the agency tried capturing and relocating bears that killed livestock, but they eventually returned to their original habitats and resumed causing problems.

So Fish and Wildlife maintains a list of people who own dogs that are specifically trained to chase and tree a bear and then it's put down, she said.

While bears have been a problem in the mountain areas, Tom said mountain lions are attacking livestock in the western part of the Navajo Reservation.

One mountain lion killed five sheep near Shonto, Ariz., the week of July 9, Tom said.

Fish and Wildlife has only two rangers to cover the entire reservation, she said.

In the past, the agency got funding for additional rangers to help control livestock attacks by bears, mountain lions and dogs, but it's not been a priority for either the executive or the legislative branch for several years, she said.

"The other pressing needs are public safety and social work, not wildlife damage," Tom said with frustration.

She said studies of bears and mountain lions are also needed to track where most of them are living, what they're eating, where they roam, and how many there are on the Navajo Nation.

The last bear study was conducted in the 1970s or '80s, she said, and much has changed since then.

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