How to Stalk Desert Bears

Stalking desert bears can prove to be highly challenging and extremely exciting.

How to Stalk Desert Bears

Stalking desert bears for close bowhunting opportunities is challenging, exciting and rewarding if you're successful. (Photo: Patrick Meitin)

Just like America’s Southwest, the term “desert” often includes elastic limits. There are northern deserts, such as much of the Great Basin. But in direct relation to North American black bear hunting, what I have in mind are the foothill regions and high desert basins of Arizona and New Mexico.

Those areas are where some of the nation’s best-scoring bruin skulls are collected thanks to a combination of superior genetics and longer growing seasons. Bear densities in much of this habitat are lower than classic northern habitats. But the relative openness of these landscapes often makes bears more visible and more vulnerable to exciting spot-and-stalk ploys.

There is something inherently thrilling about stalking a bear face to face on the same ground he occupies. Watch a bruin effortlessly break a branch the same diameter as your arm just to reach a few more tidbits of fruit or nut and you’ll realize just how puny you really are. There is an element of danger, real or imaged, that adds to the intensity of the experience and provides that shot of adrenaline that hunters can’t get enough of. It also causes you to aim more smartly, considering the potential consequences.           

Black bears are most often pursued in Northern boreal forests, Eastern hardwoods or high-altitude Western mountains where thick woods, well-watered canyons and even swampy terrain dominate. The idea of a desert hunt for black bears may seem completely foreign to many, and certainly the novelty of such surroundings is part of the overall appeal. But Southwest habitats and alluring bruin fare often converge to draw bears — sometimes big bears — to lower altitudes with less available cover. Those lower altitudes are generally easier to access and less available cover often (but not always) makes bears easier to spot when the situation is approached intelligently. 

It should be obvious that bear hunting is always about food. With fall, and the anticipation of winter hibernation, bears are ruled by their stomachs. Where there is food, bears won’t be far behind. And because of the fickle nature of the Southwest climate, namely precipitation and its seasonal timing, and even drought, food is where you find it. Food often appears in abundance in deserts, or at least lower foothills receiving stingy rainfall, even during dry years, and when typical high-country crops fail (berries and acorns, for instance), desert fare often provides bruins belly-filling alternatives.  

Because bears do indeed poop in the woods, the kind of bear sign you find while scouting or hunting can clue you into what the current bill of fare provides. That allows you to seek concentrations of those particular crops and further increase your odds of success. 

With that in mind, here are the natural desert crops to keep an eye on during dry seasons — or monitor each year for a unique or offbeat black bear hunt. 

Cactus Bruins

It’s no secret bears have a sweet tooth, and nothing in the desert is sweeter than the ripe, bright-red fruit of fall prickly-pear cactus. Stuck on a sharpened stick, skin and needle fuzz carved away, I’ve happily devoured these kiwi-flavored treats myself. 

Prickly pear fruit are nearly exclusively a southern Arizona and New Mexico phenomenon, largely discovered in low-country foothills adjacent to the Mogollon Rim and Gila and Lincoln national forests, respectively, usually by August and into September. Prickly-pear cactus is drought tolerant, so even during droughty years its fruit is generally available, though the sweet nature of the fruit often lures bears from afar even when traditional foods are abundant. Hunting prickly-pear areas is really the epitome of desert-bear hunting. 

Arizona residents are likely most familiar with this program, haunting foothill regions off the Mogollon Rim from Eager (east) to Prescott (west) and any number of desert-mountain “sky islands” down into the southeastern quadrant of the state. The Native American lands of the San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache Indian Reservations also offer prime desert-bear opportunities, with many behemoth boars tagged, though a guide is required. 

In New Mexico, I’ve witnessed most cactus bears in the Glenwood and Alma areas of the southern Gila National Forest, Blue Range Wilderness Area and foothill breaks south to Mule Creek, as well as the Black Range/Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area. I have also witnessed monster bears in the Boothill Region of the decidedly desert-like Pelloncillo Mountains not far from the Mexican border.

Intensive scouting is imperative, covering a lot of ground and slowing only when you find abundant cactus fruit, then seeking the telltale scat of cactus-gobbling bears. It will look like piles of spilled jam. Walking sand washes seeking bear tracks can also set you on the right path. The idea is then to gain the high ground and put quality optics to work, doing more glassing than hiking. 

I recall one such fall above the San Francisco River gorge near Alma. I was scouting Coues whitetail deer, but instead discovering an abundance of black bears. That was an exception to the typical low bear density found in the desert, because in three days we counted 18 bears. On the third day, I stalked and shot a Booner brown-phase bear with my recurve bow and wood arrow.  

PJ Bears

In the common parlance of the Southwest, PJs refer not to pajamas but piñon-juniper-dominated habitats. In the foothill and mesa regions of Arizona and New Mexico, piñon nuts and juniper berries offer important staples for fall bears. In the strictest sense, PJ country isn’t true desert, but denizens of eastern, northern or alpine bear habitats would agree these rocky, sometimes sandy habitats are decidedly desert-like.  

Piñon pine nuts generally produce in seven-year cycles, meaning they’re not something you can count on annually. They offer ultra-high fat content and attract hungry bears looking to bulk up quickly for winter hibernation. Bears munching piñon nuts produce droppings full of undigested nut shells.   

Juniper berries become most important during droughty years when traditional provender such as acorns fails (and cactus fruit is far removed). They are semi-sweet when ripe, so the mature bright-purple berries are what bears generally prefer. Juniper berries aren’t the most nutritious food around, so bears must eat them in high volume to remain sated. 

That provides a few advantages to bear hunters — lots of droppings to cue you to hotspots — and bears seem to become drunk on juniper berries when eating little else, making them a bit dopey. Bears seldom venture far from productive juniper thickets, eating their fill, falling into shade nearby for a nap and then rising to feed once more. If you encounter copious purple-berry-filled droppings, slow down and scour the area thoroughly and carefully.

I might be mistaken about the intoxication bit, but it does seem that on those years when bears were really stuck in juniper berries they became much easier to approach. I remember one giant Gila Wilderness boar that absolutely knew I was there. I was packing out an elk camp and without a bow (though the season was open) and it made no effort to flee and continued eating while keeping a close eye on me. A friend and I returned the following weekend and he tagged his first bear with bow after hunting only a day — an exciting stalk in open mesa country.      

PJ country, as most Southwest elk hunters know, often proves thick and difficult to penetrate with binoculars. Much PJ country has flat mesas and rolling foothills, making vantages rare. I’ve had the best luck covering ground greedily until discovering concentrated sign, and then slowing to a quick-but-quiet still-hunting pace with the wind curling back my eyelashes, glassing ahead and keeping my ears open. It’s not uncommon to hear bears cracking branches from trees to reach a few more nuts or berries. On still days those cracks carry hundreds of yards.    

Sand-Wash Oaks

The hardy blue oak common to the desert foothills of Arizona and New Mexico is also a reliable black bear draw. These often grow along sinuous sandy washes, extending miles into creosote or mesquite flats and rocky foothills far from real mountains or conifers. Those growing around scattered springs often produce the sweetest nuts.

The thing about blue oak acorns is they are highly palatable, free of the bitter tannins of most acorn varieties. When ripe, I enjoy eating them myself, shelling them and eating them like raw Brazil nuts. This palatability, combined with high nutrition and fat content, often lures bears far into the desert. 

The nature of the habitat dictates that this is low-density hunting, meaning you’ll have to cover a lot of ground to find widely-scattered bears. But the nature of the settings also means fresh sign is easily detected. When I lived in New Mexico on the eastern flanks of the Black Range, I would run the state highway that ran parallel to that mountain range and across the rolling desert foothills during fall season. I’d stop at every major wash and check for bear tracks in the large, sand-filled culverts. 

These were private lands with desert muley hunting jealously guarded. But informing a cattleman they had a bear roaming their ranch typically got my foot in the door. The trick was then to hike out these long washes—again with the wind in my face—seeking concentrations of bear sign. Bears were generally fairly easy to locate in this relatively open country, while stalking into bow range sometimes proved a hands-and-knees affair.

The Southwest proper (including southern California) offers the most classic desert-bear hunt on a more-or-less regular basis, as well as relinquishing a good percentage of my highest-scoring ones. When you hit it right — such as my three-day weekend and 18 bear sightings resulting in my best bear to date, it can be absolute magic. On average weeks, many days might pass between bear sightings, but when you find your bruin, slipping into range without them vanishing into thick cover is all the more likely.                

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