Predator Attacks Escalate as Americans Encroach on Wildlife Habitat

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Alligators attacked 78 people in the United States during the 1980s and 110 people between 1990 and 1995. By comparison, there are only five recorded alligator attacks between 1830 and 1969.

Hunting and commercial harvesting once threatened to wipe out alligators, but the ancient reptiles began to recover after interstate shipment of illegal alligator hides was banned. Gators have now moved from remote swamps into suburban and urban lakes and canals where they come into contact with people daily.

"You literally have people's back doors facing alligator habitat," said Harry Dutton, alligator management leader for the Florida Fish and Conservation Commission. "You have to expect that occasionally alligators are going to wander into people's yards."

There have been two alligator-related deaths this year in Florida: a 2-year-old girl who wandered away from her backyard in Winter Haven, and a 70-year-old man whose body was found floating in a Venice pond with an 8-foot (2.5-meter) gator circling nearby.

Cougars—also known as mountain lions, pumas, catamounts and panthers—once roamed most of North America, but are now reduced to 13 Western states, Florida, and southwestern Canada. The Florida panther, a subspecies of cougar, is one of the most endangered animals in the world.

Half of the 20th century's 14 known deaths from cougar attacks in North America occurred in the 1990s. Colorado's only two fatal cougar attacks both occurred in the 1990s. Of the ten known nonfatal cougar attacks in Washington State, eight have occurred since 1990.

Last year, three cougar attacks were reported, including one against a four-year-old girl who was seriously injured near her parent's campsite at Bartlett Lake in Arizona.

In January, a cougar near Banff in Alberta, Canada, killed a 30-year-old skier—the first cougar killing in the province. A month later, a 52-year-old bicyclist was attacked on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and might have been killed had a passing tugboat crewman not stopped his truck and pried the cougar off the bicyclist's neck.

Woods are "Much Safer" Than Any City

"It's an important thing to keep in mind that this is a very small risk," said cougar expert Paul Beier, a wildlife ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. "You are much safer taking a walk in the woods than walking down the street in any neighborhood in any city in the United States."

There were 128 deaths from grizzly and black bears in North America during the 20th century, with 56 deaths—nearly half—occurring in the last two decades, according to Stephen Herrero, an environmental science professor at the University of Calgary.

By comparison, there were six fatal bear attacks in all of the 1940s and only one in the 1930s, said Herrero, an expert on bear attacks.

"There is a definite upward trend in bear-inflicted injuries,'' Herrero said. "It really began taking off in the 1980s.''

Grizzly bears are fewer in number than black bears, but more dangerous. Grizzlies killed eighteen people during the last decade compared to two people killed by black bears.

This year there have been two fatal bear attacks: a 93-year-old woman killed at her home in northern New Mexico and an 18-year-old camper killed near Yellowknife in Canada.

A drought in the lower Rocky Mountains has also led black bears to range wider in search of food, bringing them into close contact with people. In Colorado, bears have been seen this year at fast-food restaurants and strolling down suburban Denver streets. Tennis star Chris Evert and former Olympic ski racer Andy Mill returned to their home in Aspen one day to find a black bear foraging in the kitchen. Sixteen bear sightings were reported in one night this month in Trinidad.

Last year, a woman hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was killed by a black bear, the first fatal attack in the southeastern United States.

Florida has never had a bear attack, but nuisance black bear calls to the state Fish and Conservation commission skyrocketed from less than 100 a year in the early 1990s to 1,136 calls last year.

"People tell us, 'I don't know why these bears are tearing down the screens on my porch every day,' and they've got six bowls of pet food sitting out there," said Tom Eason, Florida state bear management leader. "It's pretty obvious to us why it's happening."

Copyright 2001 Scripps Howard News Service

Related Story: Montana Town Seeks Ways to Repel Cougars, Bears
In the town of Kalispell, Montana, the local Fish, Wildlife and Parks service received about 2,800 calls last year concerning bears and cougars in the backyards of people's homes. As the town expands, garbage and pets are expected to lure predators in even greater numbers. National Geographic Today reports. Go>>

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