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As winter nears, a busy acorn season during drought brings bears close to Flagstaff
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As winter nears, a busy acorn season during drought brings bears close to Flagstaff

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It's not every day you see a black bear in the city.

Local Neil Weintraub saw one recently while running trails in Flagstaff with some friends.

“When we saw the paw prints, it just heightened our awareness,” Weintraub said. “And then there they were — very early in the morning right after sunrise.”

He snapped a photo of the bear, as he and his running companions kept their distance but marveled at how grateful they were to be so close to wildlife.

“That doesn’t happen very often. It was just thrilling,” Weintraub added. “We felt very lucky.”

Black bears are among the many animals who neighbor Flagstaff and have been known to make their way into town, especially in the summer. Locals, however, have still been seeing bears near Mount Elden Estates and even Buffalo Park as temperatures get colder and bears prepare for the winter.

Tim Holt, Arizona Game and Fish Department's Flagstaff field supervisor, said acorns produce once every two years, and this year there has been a bumper crop of them. Acorns have been an important food source for bears due to the prolonged extreme drought across Coconino County that has reduced their access to green grasses and forbs.

Despite many people's fear of bears, the black bear is an omnivore and rarely makes their own kills. They prefer to eat plant material such as berries and wild roses, Holt said. This year, acorns are big on their menu.

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In one case, a bear was spotted going in and out of the Timberline neighborhood for about two weeks straight. Holt learned that someone in the neighborhood had large Gambel oak trees that had lots of acorns.

“That bear stayed there on those acorns for almost two weeks fattening up for the winter,” Holt said.

Bears that move in close to humans can be dangerous. The Arizona Game and Fish Department keeps an eye on reported animal sightings and categorizes their behavior to determine how dangerous an animal could become.

Most animals like bears and mountain lions become higher risks as they get more curious, or less afraid, of humans. People feeding animals -- like leaving out food on their porch -- can increase the risk of bears acclimating to humans. The closer bears get to communities, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong.

Injuries caused by bears are rare, but those that injure people or pose an immediate public safety threat must be killed. This year, there were fewer than five bears that met the highest category of public risk.

Bears like the one in Timberline and Buffalo Park are monitored but score low on the scale because they run at the sight of humans, and are still active at normal times during the day — the early morning and late evening.

“After he was done consuming acorns, he left. That’s what we want,” Holt said. “We want bears, and even mountain lions, to live near us, near town. Most of the time we won’t even know about it.”

Holt asked people to follow local city ordinances and keep pet food indoors so hungry bears don't come feeding. Doing so could keep you from getting injured, or the bear from getting hurt.

"I think from a wildlife viewing perspective, we want to emphasize, these are amazing creatures," Holt said. "Appreciate them when you do see them, but make sure you keep your distance, make yourself loud and visible."

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