New Mexico records first fatal bear attack in a century

Saturday, September 1, 2001

CLEVELAND, N.M. -- At 93, Adelia Trujillo still got around without a cane. She was spunky and strong-willed, stubbornly insisting on staying in her small adobe house with its tin pitched roof. But she was no match for the animal that broke into her kitchen.

Trujillo was killed Aug. 18 in the first fatal bear attack in New Mexico in a century of record-keeping.

The 250-pound, 4-year-old black bear was tracked down by dogs and shot hours later a half-mile away.

In New Mexico this summer, dry conditions and a killer frost have sent bears out of the mountains and into people's homes in search of food.

Trujillo's neighbors and friends in and around Cleveland, about 45 miles of northeast of Santa Fe, were shocked and sickened by her death.

"I'm scared at night," said Tita Martinez, 73, a widow who played bingo with her at the senior citizens center in Mora. "I just pray to God to help me."

In North America in the last century, black bears killed 45 people, according to Stephen Herrero, a bear expert from the University of Calgary, Alberta. Three-fourths of those deaths were in Canada.

Trujillo's death was the second this year, Herrero said; a camper in Canada was fatally mauled in June.

"The odds of being killed by a black bear in an attack can't be anything but extremely slim, because each year there are millions and millions of interactions between people and bears," said Herrero, author of "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance."

Used to seeing bears

Residents of villages at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are used to seeing bears. The animals lumber down from the hillsides every summer to raid the apples, plums and chokecherries that dot the meadows and line the roads in this lush river valley.

But this year, the bears have been deprived of much of their usual food -- berries, grass and other young vegetation -- in the mountains. And they are not finding much in Mora's orchards.

Around the state this summer, hungry bears have attacked wildlife and farm animals, dragged a camper from his sleeping bag, broken through doors and windows and torn apart kitchens.

"My kids play outside, and it's really scary -- even in the daytime," said Beatrice Vigil, who lives in Monte Aplanado, near Cleveland. "We don't trust the bears now, that's for sure."

The state Game and Fish Department regional office some 80 miles away in Raton, near the Colorado line, has been logging about 100 bear complaints a day, four times as many as in the previous worst year, said Joanna Lackey, chief of operations in the state's northeastern quarter.

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