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Wildlife Finds: Smokey Bear (Black Bears in New Mexico)

Hot Foot Teddy on a rock

Photo: Smokey Bear, or "Hot Foot Teddy." Public Domain via US Forest Service.

Wednesday the ninth was Smokey Bear's 79th birthday! The character of Smokey was first introduced in 1944, offering his classic message of fire safety in the forest. In 1950, the character was brought to life when his name was given to a black bear cub left orphaned by a fire in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest.

For over 20 years thereafter, Smokey, also known as "Hot Foot Teddy" for his miraculous wildfire survival, was the living mascot of fire safety and lived in the National Zoo. Today, Smokey's message and his story continue to resound with recreationists across the country and remind us of the many values at stake when fires grow out of control.

Black bears like Smokey (Ursus americanus) can be found throughout the country, but these seldom-seen predators are ubiquitous in New Mexico's higher elevations, finding homes in just about every National Forest in the state. Though many from other states might not guess, the black bear is actually our state animal! Despite the name, black bears in New Mexico are often spotted with cinnamon, brown, or reddish fur.

In New Mexico, this species has thousands of individuals spread across the state, though they rarely venture from their forested homes where they excel in climbing trees and foraging all types of food. The infamous grizzly bear once thrived in New Mexico as well, dominating grasslands and plains in higher elevations, but this species was entirely extinct in the state by 1930.

Though frigid winters aren't very common in the state, black bears in New Mexico still enter a state of near-hibernation every year. Unlike a "true" hibernation, they don't sleep the entire time (females give birth during this period) and can still react to potential danger, but the bear's body systems adapt to allow them to survive in complete inactivity. In the depths of winter, black bears metabolize food almost completely, eliminating the need to eat or relieve themselves of waste while in their (surprisingly small) dens. This helps them avoid detection by eliminating the possibility of odors attracting large predators.

You can learn more about these predators and their history in New Mexico from the NM Department of Game and Fish, and more about how to coexist with bears from the City of Albuquerque.


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