Maulings by Bears: What's Behind the Recent Attacks?

What should you do if you find yourself face-to-face with an aggressive bear?

At least six people in five states have been mauled by black and brown bears recently.

The recent bear attacks in North America over the past week are unrelated to one another and are not indicative of a trend, experts say.

At least six people in five states have been mauled by black and brown bears recently. The latest incident occurred on Saturday, when a hunter in the remote Alaskan wilderness was attacked by an alleged brown bear, also known as a grizzly bear, and survived more than 36 hours before being rescued by the state's air national guard.

Last Thursday, hikers in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming were attacked by a female grizzly after they got too close to her cubs. One of the men was clawed and bitten on his backside.

Also on Thursday, 12-year-old Abigail Wetherell was attacked by a black bear while out on an evening jog in northern Michigan.

According to news reports, Wetherell initially tried to run away from the bear, but she was chased and knocked down. After trying to escape a second time and failing, she played dead. A neighbor who heard the girl scream eventually scared the animal away, but not before it slashed Wetherell's thigh.

Over the weekend, conservation officers shot and killed a black bear they believed to be the one that attacked Wetherell.

Bear expert John Beecham said it's unclear from the accounts he's read why the animal might have attacked the girl. "It might have been a female [bear] and she had young, or the girl might have just come up on the bear fairly quickly while running through the woods, and it perceived her as a threat and attacked," he said.

Despite all of these bear attacks occurring relatively recently, the incidents are unrelated, said Beecham, who is a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Bear Specialist Group.

"They're not linked at all that I'm aware of," said Beecham, who specializes in human-bear conflicts.

Beecham added that while scientists do predict that surprise encounters between bears and humans will become more common as the two species encroach on one another's territories, a spike in bear attacks during one month of one year cannot be taken as evidence of that.

We asked Beecham to talk about some of the reasons why bears attack and what people should do if they find themselves face-to-face with a bear.

Is the number of reports of bear attacks higher than usual this summer?

There's been a number of attacks by both black bears and grizzlies in the past month or so. So that is pretty unusual.

Are some species of bears more aggressive toward humans than others?

Here in North America, brown bears or grizzlies, especially those living in the interior [of the continent], are more aggressive and involved in more attacks on people.

Probably one of the least aggressive is the American black bear.

What are some reasons why bears attack humans?

Typically, you see two types of attacks on humans. One is a defensive attack, which most typically involves defending young or a food source, such as a prey carcass.

[A bear might also launch a defensive attack] if you startle it. You might walk around the corner of a house and all of a sudden you're within just a couple of feet of the bear, and it responds immediately and attacks. That could be the case with this girl in Michigan.

Bears can also do what's called a bluff charge. That's not an attack; it's simply a behavior. The animal will pop its jaws and give you all kinds of signals that you're encroaching on its personal space and it's uncomfortable with that.

And then you have predatory attacks, which is a completely different scenario, and the bear's behavior is completely different as well.

Can you talk more about what a predatory attack is like?

In a predatory attack, the animal is actually looking at you as a food source. Typically, the animal is stalking you, and you'll see the animal. Predatory attacks are extremely rare.

In those cases, you'll want to try to scare it off by yelling or throwing things at it. You've got to become a threat to discourage it from attacking you ... You want to get a stick, or if you don't have a weapon, make loud noises or threatening gestures toward the bear. Try to make it think, "Okay, maybe the risk here is greater than I want to deal with."

What should a person's response be if they are dealing with a defensive bear attack?

If it's a defensive attack, play dead. The little girl from Michigan did absolutely the right thing. Because the bear perceives you as a threat and its objective is to eliminate the threat, once you become nonthreatening, the animal typically walks away.

What would you say to people who are frightened of bears after reading about these recent attacks?

I'd give them a little of my history. I've worked on bears since 1972. I've camped in the woods with them, and have trapped and handled over 2,000 bears. I've never had a close call. The risk is certainly there, but it's pretty minimal.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself about bears and what to do in certain situations. For example, if I'm traveling in grizzly country and I get into a tight space where I can't see very well, I make a noise, and I know if the bear knows I'm there, it's going to slip away quietly.

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.