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A photo of a black bear.

A remote camera captures a black bear crossing a fallen log.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL NICHOLS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Reed Karaim

for National Geographic

Published May 8, 2014

When a black bear killed a female employee at an oil sands plant in a remote area of Alberta, Canada, on May 7, it was the first fatal bear attack reported in North America in 2014—but only the latest in a spate of attacks in the last year.

They include a woman in suburban Lake Mary, Florida, who was dragged and badly bitten by a bear feeding on garbage in her garage; an elderly man clawed by a brown bear on a porch in Pasadena, California, and a 12-year-old girl mauled while jogging near her grandparents' home in Cadillac, Michigan.

"Across the range of black bears, there's been a general increase in human-bear conflicts," says John Beecham, a research biologist and expert on interactions between the two species.

Only four attacks since 2010 have led to the death of a human, and experts on bear behavior emphasize that deadly attacks remain rare. But maulings or other aggressive incidents have become more common: The August 2013 attack on the girl in Michigan was one of seven attacks across five states in just five days.

The increase appears to be partly the result of simple math. "We have more people, we have more bears, and we have more people living in bear habitat," says Beecham, who spent 29 years with the Idaho Game and Fish Department. "That's a big part of what we're dealing with." The rise in attacks, he says, is just "a function of more people coming into contact with black bears."

Stephen Herrero, a leading authority on bear behavior, examined the historical record of fatal attacks by black bears in North America in a 2011 article in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Herrero found that 63 people had been killed in 59 attacks by black bears from 1900 to 2009—with 86 percent of those attacks occurring since 1960.

In a study of more recent black bears attacks, both lethal and nonlethal, Herrero and Hank Hristienko, a biologist with the Manitoba provincial government, found 92 attacks across Canada and the U.S. from 2010 to 2013. The number of attacks annually climbed from 19 in 2010 to 32 last year.

MAP of fatal bear attacks in US and Canada since 1900
LAUREN E. JAMES AND KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI, NG STAFF; MEG ROOSEVELT. SOURCE: IUCN; HERRERO, S., ET AL. Journal of Wildlife Management; HANK HRISTIENKO, MANITOBA CONSERVATION AND WATER STEWARDSHIP

Bear Population Growing

The North American black bear population is estimated at 850,000 to 950,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It has been growing in numbers and expanding its range, largely as a result of conservation efforts and because forested bear habitat has expanded.

Black bears live in 41 U.S. states, with occasional sightings in others, reports the IUCN. They also live in all the Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island and can be found in limited numbers in eight Mexican states.

Brown bears, which include grizzlies, make up a much smaller population and generally live in more remote areas in the West. The IUCN puts the North American population at around 58,000. Bear specialists say there is less evidence of a rise in brown bear attacks.

There is no national clearinghouse that tracks bear attacks. But reports from local authorities suggest that eastern U.S. states, in particular, are seeing more of them. Florida has had a surge in incidents in recent years, including two violent maulings in the last six months.

New Jersey also has experienced an increase. "Conflicts are a daily occurrence. We've got bears everywhere you can possibly imagine, in places you can't believe they're living," says Kelcey Burguess, a biologist and black bear expert with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The state avoided a serious mauling recently, Burguess says, but "we've had a lot of bears breaking into homes, people being chased, people being knocked down." Bears are denning under people's porches, he adds, and even showing up in school yards: "You know how schools have fire drills? We have schools that have a bear drill."

Picture of a black bear walking on a street.
This black bear went from house to house in pursuit of garbage cans to rummage through in East Anchorage, Alaska, in 2012.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL ROTH/ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Getting Used to Humans—and Their Food

Wildlife biologists say that in many areas, bears have become used to living in close quarters with people, especially since several eastern states banned hunting in the last three or four decades. The animals also have found it more rewarding to hunt for food in garbage cans and backyards than in the wild.

A black bear needs to consume about 20,000 calories a day when it is putting on weight in preparation for hibernation, says Hristienko, and this requires about 80 pounds of wild fruit or seven to eight pounds of acorns.

"Bird feed has even more calories than acorns," Hristienko says. "A bear can spend hours and hours finding 20,000 calories of wild fruit, or it can go into six or seven backyards, clean the bird feeder out, and be done for the day."

Cheryl Carrothers, acting national wildlife program leader for the U.S. Forest Service, says it appears some bears have even stopped hibernating. Climate change could be playing a role, she says, but so could the year-round availability of food from human sources. "When I was working up in Lake Tahoe basin we saw some indication that was happening," Carrothers says. "They're amazingly adaptable creatures."

If bears have grown accustomed to living around people, humans have been slower to adjust to bears.

Many fail to take basic precautions when bears start appearing in their neighborhoods, such as securing their garbage, feeding pets indoors, or not leaving bird feeders out. These attractants are commonly what bring bears into close contact with people, wildlife biologists say.

"Those of us in the bear world say human-bear conflicts, not bear-human conflicts," says Beecham, "because 99 percent of the problem is caused by people."

Young Male Bears Cause Most Deaths

The common perception is that a mother bear with baby cubs is the most dangerous bear, but Herrero's study found that young male bears actually killed the most people. Male bears were involved in 92 percent of predatory attacks—when a bear stalks a human as prey—and most were in the wild.

"Young males in many mammalian species are more risktaking and more aggressive, and that's definitely the pattern here," Herrero says. "It fits bears and men and a number of other species."

Mother bears that feel stressed can exhibit aggressive behavior: pawing the ground, roaring, even making a short charge at a person. But these actions are usually a kind of bluff, Herrero says, and rarely result in an attack if the bear is given enough space.

A predatory bear is more apt to move quietly until it strikes. Beecham says many nonpredatory attacks result when a bear is surprised at close quarters and feels its cubs or food supply is threatened.

Man's best friend also turns out to be no friend when it comes to bears: Dogs were involved in more than half the cases in Hristienko and Herrero's study of bear attacks from 2010 to 2013. The study found that in most of those cases, the dogs were running off leash and drew the bears to their owners.

"Bears and dogs coevolved as competitors," says Herrero, "and I think sometimes the bark of a dog triggers a very hardwired pattern in bears. They see them as competitors for food and potentially a threat."

Learn to Coexist or Reduce Bears' Numbers?

Herrero believes bear attacks are likely to continue to increase until more people learn how to live around them safely. New Jersey and Florida are among the states that have public information campaigns on how to lower the risk of a dangerous encounter. "You can educate people about how to live with bears," says Beecham.

Some bear experts, however, believe an additional step is needed. They support reducing the growing bear population by expanding hunting, which they say also makes bears more wary of humans. "That's the one saving grace we've had here—we instituted a hunting season in 2010, and our negative interactions have decreased ever since," says New Jersey's Burguess.

But Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, says the growing number of black bears is part of a successful effort to restore several wild species to healthy population levels. "The answer to this 'problem of success' isn't to kill the animals because they're recovering from near extinction," he says. "We need to make more room for them—become more educated about how to live in landscapes also inhabited by large animals."

Herrero thinks bear attacks need to be put in perspective. Dogs kill between 30 and 35 people annually in the United States. Spiders kill an average of 6.6 people every year.  Since 1960, deadly black bear attacks have averaged slightly more than one per year.

"And there's 900,000 or so of [the bears]," Herrero says. "What do you think is the more dangerous species—bears, spiders, dogs, or humans?"

The Pasadena mauling involved a black bear that was brown in color. We thank our readers for clarifying the point.

11 comments
James Guinane
James Guinane

Humans are by far the most dangerous species on earth.

Jan Eberts
Jan Eberts

People need to be educated, that's to start.  They make special bear-proof trash containers that be need to be used.  Dogs are "bear-bait".  For some reason, they attract bears.  So proper fencing needs to be used for your dog.  DON"T FEED THE BEARS.  That makes them less afraid of people.  I have visited the Great Smokey Mountains several times, and have seen people feed bears.  You might as well be signing a death certificate for them by doing that.  Also, I have seen people chase after them to get a picture!  Not caring if they have cubs or not.  STUPID.  One smack with those 4-inch claws and you're done.  Education, that's what is needed to start.  It's not the bears' fault.  It's OUR fault!!!

Martina Martin
Martina Martin

It isn't an oopsie! A brown bear IS a black bear!!! They are the same sub species, just a different color. You can also have blond black bears. Some people call brown bears grizzlies, but that is incorrect!  

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

Bad Journalism.The rise in attacks is directly related to the stupidity of humans around bears

Cher Renke
Cher Renke

Tsk Tsk Nat'l Geographic...  The opening paragraph has a "whoopsie" in it! 

There are no Brown bear living in the state of California.  The fellow in Pasadena had an incident with a Black Bear... seperate subspecies...  Incorrect Information on species that don't need any added "Bad Press"...  is not very good for conservation efforts.

marc alper
marc alper

Surprisingly sloppy journalism.  The article states an elderly man in Pasadena  was 'clawed by a brown bear on a porch'. That is incorrect. He  was clawed by a black bear. Black bear and brown bear are separate species, regardless of the color of their fur  The last time ursa arctos(brown bear and subspecies) was seen in California was 1922. It was shot dead.

Justin L.
Justin L.

@Martina Martin  Not even close to correct.  There are brown bears (Ursus arctosand black bears (Ursus americanus and Ursus thibetanusand subspecies of each.  A grizzly is a subspecies of the brown bear.  The brown bear is not the same as a black bear, regardless of coat color which can vary between the subspecies and individual animal.  

chuck naulty
chuck naulty

@Sean Nolan  You're right,  I live in the Poconos which is prime bear habitat and people refuse to take the precautions to stop attracting them.  There should be baited areas where they can be tranquilized and neutered,  if they neutered enough males it wouldn't be necessary to do the females since one male can service multiple mates but this is a utopian solution.  Pennsylvania culled the deer herd by letting the hunters legally slaughter the deer in record numbers which is probably what will happen with the bears.

David Bard
David Bard

@Cynthia Carlson Earth's size is fixed, you can't have more or less. Humans however are increasing. Too many humans.

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