Reality Check: Bear Attacks
I n two days, two people were killed by separate black bear attacks in Alaska.
Erin Johnson, 27, was killed while doing contract work with Ellen Trainor, 38, who was also attacked but survived with relatively minor injuries.
That came a day after 16-year-old Patrick Cooper was killed while running a race in the wilds of his home state. These attacks received huge news coverage around the world.
Bear attacks are rare.
Black bear attacks are even more rare.
Only six attacks attributed to black bears had been documented previously in Alaska in more than 100 years.
Currently there are around 100,000 black bears inhabiting Alaska alongside 700,000 people. That means there is one bear for every seven people which is a pretty high ratio even factoring in the amount of habitat in the state.
This story has wildlife apologists throughout the blogosphere and broadcast media making statements like “most fatal black bear attacks are examples of the animals defending their territory” and “the majority of attacks are by mothers defending their cubs.”
Not true. Not even close.
A study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management documents 63 people killed in 59 incidents by non-captive black bears between 1900 and 2009.
Here is the standout quote from the study.
“We judged that the bear involved acted as a predator in 88 percent (49 of 56) of fatal incidents. Adult or sub adult male bears were involved in 92 percent of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears. That most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by one bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.”
That a majority of black bear attacks are predatory is something recognized by the bulk of fish and game departments throughout the United States. Even my home state of Texas, which has a small (but growing) black bear population, distributes information stating that if anyone is attacked by a black bear they should fight back.
Advice to play dead is often given regarding bear attacks, but that is for grizzlies which often attack to protect territory or perhaps because they didn’t like the way the person looked that day. (Hey, they’re grizzlies. They can do what they want!)
But it is known that black bear attacks, albeit rare, are often predatory as this study shows.
Another interesting note came in regard to proportion of bear to human population.
Fatal black bear attacks occurred in Canada and Alaska and in the lower 48 states. There were 3.5 times as many fatal attacks in Canada and Alaska but only 1.75 times as many black bears, and much less human contact for black bears in Canada and Alaska. There was a weak positive correlation between the estimated size of a bear population within a given jurisdiction and the number of fatal black bear attacks. Some jurisdictions had no fatal black bear attacks, but had large estimated black bear populations.
In a state where bears are not hunted and have little reason to fear people, it could be argued that is a factor. But Alaska has plenty of bear hunting, and in fact there are around 3,000 black bears killed by permitted hunters there annually.
The vast majority of black bears are not out to get people. If they were highly dangerous animals, states such as California, which has 30,000 bears and 30 million people, would have attacks frequently.
That’s not the case.
Chances are these two attacks simply happened. These very unfortunate people were in the wrong place at the wrong time and met the wrong bears.
But the response to whitewash black bear predation must stop. Education is always the beginning of conservation and the public in bear country needs to be educated about the fact black bears do sometimes kill and eat people.
More important, there is a profile so to speak of the most potentially dangerous animals, which are males, especially older ones. That way if a bear comes strolling through someone’s back yard a few times they can make an informed decision. They might just want to tighten up trash pickup and avoid grilling outside for a bit— or they might decide to call their fish and game department about relocation.
People also need to know that bears are a vital part of the ecosystem. They can and do live with very little incident through North America. Fear does no good for anyone. Truth, however, goes a long way in helping bears and people.
Bear management is complex. However, education and forward-thinking conservation plans can decrease the already small number of attacks—if cool heads and common sense prevail.
Although it’s easy to belittle the number of fatalities, it offers no comfort to the families of those killed by bears. The best way to honor them and be good stewards of black bears is to move forward with the truth at the forefront and science-based management solutions that have both bears and humans in mind.
Hundreds of thousands of Texans, hunt, fish and hike in areas heavily populated with bears. Plus, more and more black bears are moving into Texas via Mexico as well as from states to the east.
It’s important we have a reality check on bears and bear management as well as give Texans who may have never encountered a bear, an honest look at a species worthy of respect.
Email Chester Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org