Wildlife experts say extended drought conditions provide the perfect recipe for you to come face to face with a bear or mountain lion.
This could be your lucky year.
“Because of the prolonged drought that we are currently experiencing, we are predicting more bear and mountain lion activity around Arizona communities this summer,” said Tom Bagley, a wildlife manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department for 28 years, the last 26 of which have been spent in the Verde Valley.
It’s already begun.
There have been bear sightings -- and in some cases, the animals have been euthanized -- in Payson, Show Low, Yarnell, Pinetop, Mesa, Anthem and Munds Park this year, according to Game and Fish.
Just last month, Game and Fish reported a bear aggressively attempting to enter a home in Payson. The bear was captured and euthanized by wildlife officers.
Payson resident Joseph Stapp told Game and Fish officers he was awoken by the sound of a large crash on his porch. “I looked out the front door, and the bear and I were face to face,” said Stapp. “He was pushing on the door, and I was pushing back.”
It was the third consecutive day the same bear had visited the neighborhood, prompting Game and Fish officers to euthanize the animal.
During the same week, wildlife managers removed a sub-adult male bear from Anthem that previously had been relocated from Prescott.
On June 5, azfamily.com reported a male bear had to be killed after it tried to enter three different homes in Munds Park, about 50 miles north of the Verde Valley.
Bears in the Verde Valley
So, with bears in the news to the north, south and east of the Verde Valley, what is the threat of such encounters in our communities?
Time will tell, explained Bagley, but one thing is for certain: There are bears living among us.
“I would say that there are about 50-70 bears in the Mingus Mountain range, including Woodchute Mountain and the Black Hills through the community of Cherry,” said Bagley. “Although some of the bears that have come into the Verde Valley communities in the past were from Mingus Mountain, others have followed Sycamore Creek to the Verde River from the Casner Mountain area. In Camp Verde, bears have come down from the Black Hills, Squaw Peak, and the Cedar Bench Wilderness.”
Already this year, back in April, there were reported sightings of a bear that traveled the Verde River from Cottonwood to Camp Verde, said Bagley. In a typical year, Game and fish will receive between two and four reported bear sightings in the Verde Valley.
“Most of these bears,” Bagley explained, “are young and leave the area on their own. If a bear remains around a populated area or begins causing trouble, we remove the bear according to set protocols to maintain public safety. Over the years, I’ve tranquilized or live-trapped nuisance bears in Camp Verde, Cottonwood, Clarkdale, and Prescott, in addition to campgrounds on Mingus Mountain.”
But, he said, 2018 is not a typical year.
“In a year like this with extreme drought, we anticipate more bears than usual coming into communities in search of food and water. Even after the typical monsoon rains start in early July, it can take a few weeks for the vegetation to green up and bears to shift to this food source.
“I would be very surprised if we do not receive reports of bear sightings in the Verde Valley from now through August. Bears are pretty visible, and not nearly as secretive as mountain lions.”
If you do come across a bear, Bagley said it’s likely going to be a juvenile, about 18 months old and weighing between 70 and 100 pounds. “Young bears spend their first year with their mother. By their second year, they have been kicked out and are on their own, searching for food, water, and shelter,” he said. “Mature male bears claim and defend the prime food and water sources, and will keep young bears away. These young bears, then, must travel, sometimes great distances, to find food and water to survive. Sometimes this search brings them into town. When they find the Verde River and area creeks, the lush riparian vegetation is strong incentive to stay a while. If the bear finds residential yards with dog food, bird seed, unsecured garbage cans, compost piles, gardens, fruit trees, green lawns, or small livestock, these attractants can be too much to resist and can lead to conflicts with humans.”
Despite its close proximity to Mingus Mountain, Jerome Police Chief Allen Muma said bears are not nearly so common to Jerome as are mountain lions, although he well remembers a bear once taking up residence in a tree in a town park.
“I have personally observed more mountain lions in Jerome than bears,” said Muma. “I have seen three bears around Jerome in all my years here, but have observed over a dozen mountain lions.”
In 2003, The Verde Independent reported several sightings of what was believed to be the same mountain lion that kept Jerome residents on edge after some residents reported missing pets and one homeowner reported coming face to face with the cougar when she opened her front door.
Jerome resident Ivy Stearman told The Verde Independent in August 2003 she heard a lion’s growl and later found pieces of her pet cat less than 20 feet from her front door. In the same story, Muma said, “A resident of town found a lion devouring his cat and he reported that it wouldn’t leave when he shouted at it.”
What to do during an extended drought
Arizona Game and Fish Department has a brochure on its website titled “Living With Bears.” In a nutshell, it says the best way to avoid encounters with bears or mountain lions is to not make your property a target. Keep all trash inside a secured area until collection day. Take bird feeders down at night. Don’t leave pet food bowls outside.
“The public can take steps to reduce bear-human conflicts by eliminating easy food sources from their property,” Bagley explained. “Common food items which draw bears to a neighborhood include unsecured garbage cans, accessible dog or cat food, bird seed, and free-ranging small livestock that are not put up at night into a secure pen or barn.”
But if you do see a bear or mountain lion on your property, Bagley said the best advice is to call in the experts. Don’t take matters into your own hands.
“The Game and Fish encourages anyone who sees a bear near a community to report it to our dispatch center, 24-hours a day, at 623-236-7201 so that we can monitor each bear’s activity and make informed decisions on how to proceed,” said Bagley.