Changing The Protocol For Euthanizing Bears

Ultrarunner Karen Williams, left, with Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard announce their mission to protect bears during an interview in  July at the Los Alamos Daily Post. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
Los Alamos

On a very hot June 18, during the Valles Caldera Marathon, a mother bear with her two cubs nearby, attacked marathoner Karen Williams who ran too close to one of her cubs. The injuries required Williams to be transported to UNMH for treatment.

Reasonable people would recognize that in this encounter the mama bear was just doing her thing. She was not predatory.She was being defensive and protective. Reasonable people understand that the single encounter would not give a predator a taste for human flesh so that she continues to go after humans (a myth that Williams’ research nullifies), nor would the bear be a threat to any other human who isn’t threatening her cubs. The mama bear was simply acting as any other good mother would.

As in most bear/human interactions, the State’s action was predictable. Two days after the encounter, New Mexico Game and Fish, aided by a radio collar with a GPS tracking device (the bear had been tagged for a black bear study) tracked down the mama and killed her.

What was not predictable is that Williams, an emergency room nurse in Los Alamos who spends a lot of time in the wilderness, decided to (1) research rabies and the rules requiring an animal’s unevaluated “euthanasia,” and then (2) enlist House Dist. 43 Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard to draft a bill that rewrites the rule that all wild animals that bite humans must be euthanized so that the Department of Health (DOH) can test the brain for rabies. (See

The current rule, New Mexico Department of Health’s (DOH) Animal Control Requirements C., directs that almost all wild animals that bite humans must be euthanized and the brain extracted so that the DOH can test it for rabies. But Williams, an endurance runner who spends many hours on the trails, wants to create a protocol that uses an evidence-based, scientific approach to determine whether a bear should be euthanized.

Rather than “destroying” all animals, the fate of the offender would be assessed through a decision tree that includes:

  • The species’ potential for rabies ( Calready exempts rabbits and rodents, for example, because they don’t carry rabies—bears can be under a similar exemption);
  • Whether the action is predatory or defensive/protective; and
  • Whether the attack location is in human or wildlife habitat.

The logic of the new rule can’t be disputed. Bears rarely get rabies. The reaction of this mama bear was provoked only because she thought Williams threatened her cubs.

Williams’ research shows that since 2012, there have been 85 cases of rabies in New Mexico, primarily in skunks (42) and bats (30), with the other rabies cases comprising: one coyote, seven foxes, two raccoons, two dogs and one ringtail. She also cites a 1963 study indicating that bears might be comparatively rabies-resistant: a black bear inoculated with 1,000 MLD50 of the virus showed no signs of disease over a five-month period, while a dog and three arctic foxes that had received 100 MLD50 of the same inoculum died of rabies in 67 to 106 days.

If those data and that decision tree show that this bear—a species that rarely gets rabies, a mamma protecting her babies in a wildlands far from normal human interactions—is not a threat, then why kill her?

That’s the question Williams poses. That’s why she wants to change this archaic rule.

“If it’s a bat,” she said, “then it needs to go. Bats, skunks, foxes…. But if it’s a bear, then look at what happened. If it was just doing its thing, then don’t euthanize it.”

In creating the bill, Rep. Garcia Richard doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel—again, Williams’ research found reasonable rules in other states (including uber-huntercentric Alaska) that address “predatory versus defensive” behavior.

This is Williams’ bill’s progress. Garcia Richard has already submitted new language to the Legislative Council Service. They are using Williams’ research to craft the bill.

After the bill is refined, it goes to the chief clerk of the Legislator’s chamber where it is assigned a number, after which it goes to (usually at least) two Legislative Committees. Within the Committees, expert witnesses present testimony, followed by audience comments.It is the Committee that decides whether or not to advance the bill to the Floor.

Once the bill is approved, it goes to the Governor who may sign a bill, veto it or take no action (a bill that is “no action” can become either a law or a pocket veto, depending on when the particular bill is sent for the governor’s consideration).*

We, the Sierra Club, can get the bill out of Committee by attending hearings and offering our comments. Attending Committee meetings where the bill is being heard is more important than attending the session on the Floor of the House or Senate. Because there’s no public comment on the Floor, the Committee hearing is the only place you can have a voice. Please come prepared with a succinct, science-based comment.

The Sierra Club also will have an online petition that we will publish here. Finally, Rep. Garcia Richard has the draft bill in process. Garcia Richard is a friend of the environment. A vote for Stephanie is critical so that we don’t lose the push for a reasonable, data-driven approach to wildlife management. Early voting began Oct. 22.