National Geographic Daily News
A black bear in Alaska.

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

Photograph by Michael Quinton, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published August 19, 2013

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.

20 comments
siddeekh k v
siddeekh k v

i heard bear had a great sense of smell....

Abd B.Hashib
Abd B.Hashib

kat negara kita tak banyak beruang..nama jer Bukit Beruang. 2 tahun duduk sana tak nampak sekor pun. saja suka share post ni mana untuk kawan kawan yang berwang

Abd B.Hashib
Abd B.Hashib

kat negara kita tak banyak beruang..nama jer Bukit Beruang. 2 tahun duduk sana tak nampak sekor pun. saja suka share post ni mana untuk kawan kawan yang berwang

Steve Russin
Steve Russin

I've been a cross country mountainbiker for 15 years and have come face to face with many black bears, the closest encounter being about 10 feet. What is still amazing to me is how fast they can run. I've seen numbers upward of 35 mph listed for thier top speed and have seen them transform from a big fat ball of fur into a black streak through the trees. It always gets my heart pumping.

Kim Brogan
Kim Brogan

I was in Glacier just a few weeks ago hiking with four others and doing what you're supposed to do--making noise as we hiked.  I was ahead of my friends when I turned a corner on the well-marked trail and was face to face with a Grizzly (a big sow.) We stared at each other for a few seconds and then I came to my senses.

I backed away, turned the corner until the bear couldn't see me and then ran to let my friends know what was going on.  We all stood our ground, spoke in low voices and the bear eventually, after continuing to approach us for several yards, disappeared into the bushes on the side of the path.  None of us had to use our bear spray (but I wouldn't go hiking in Glacier without it, that's for sure!)

Although we were minding our own business and not intent on harming anything, it just so happened that there were bears where we wanted to hike. For the most part, these encounters happen fairly frequently in places like Glacier and typically they end just as our encounter did--we had a story to tell our friends and family and the grizzly went on its merry way. You take these risks when you love the mountains. 

Ionescu Emanuel
Ionescu Emanuel

Why on Earth don't people mind their own business? I mean...a 12 years-old girl running alone in the woods? Hikers getting too close to cubs (they probably never heard of bears before)? And let's not forget the hunter with too much free time on his hands. If these would be televised I bet they'd say it was the bears' fault...

Ben Since Ninetyone
Ben Since Ninetyone

The trend that people fail to realize is that humans have fast approached and decimated these bears environment forcing them further into the hills for hiding, or setting up conditions that force the bears to adapt to a urban development and with such adaptation comes a whole new diet, human garbage.
Even though some of these bears have made it into hiding in the woods, humans still come through the woods to do activity's like hunt, fish, bike, hike, camp, quad, dirt bike, cut trees, and trail run. When performing these activities in the woods how could one not remember to be mindful of their presence and those who live in the forest around them. When traveling into the woods always know about the dangers of both flora and fauna as you are in their territory not the other way around.


Russ Nash
Russ Nash

If confronted by a bear, cover yourself in your own excrement and slowly back off. The bear will soon lose interest..

John Nicoletti
John Nicoletti

Too many humans doing too many of the wrong things, where most people do not belong.

Keisha Jackson
Keisha Jackson

Clearly the man-made global warming fraud is causing these bears to flip out and eat people. That has never happened in the history of the world -- UNTIL NOW! Anyone that understands science knows that.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

Well Duh, they're soulless godless rampaging  killing machines.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

This is a really great article, an important read for anyone who spends time in the outdoors!

Ker Than
Ker Than

@Keisha Jackson Global warming is having an effect on bears, and not just black bears and grizzlies. The warming climate is changing their habitats, and affecting their hibernation cycles food sources. It's also forcing grizzlies and polar bears into each other's territories, leading to hybrids.

For more info, read:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/12/photogalleries/091211-ten-threatened-species-animals-global-warming-pictures/photo7.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/photogalleries/101215-pizzly-grolar-bear-polar-grizzly-hybrids-nature-arctic-global-warming-pictures/

Ben Since Ninetyone
Ben Since Ninetyone

@Ker Than @Keisha Jackson 
alright polar bears and grizzlies have always had overlapping territory ALWAYS, i cant stress that enough. The only difference is that with the sea ice melting they are going to be forced into closer quarters during their hunting months. they already make the journey inland towards spring break up as the sea ice is no longer thick enough to sustain their walking/swimming/hunting escapades. Grolars occur in nature yes but more then often they are sterile an issue facing many hybrid animals from Cama's, ligers and mules. As well as being sterile they often suffer greater genetic disadvantages. In rare cases those these hybrids are fertile and can lend part in creating and furthering their hybridization.
The point i'm trying to make is these bear species have coexisted and lived near one another for a few thousand years, to say that our climate impact on the earth is the soul reason that hybrids are now existing is ridiculously large illogical connection. It can be one of the many factors contributing to it, but not the soul factor its self.
Animals need to hybridize its how their genetics can become diversified. Hybridization can play an important role in our ever changing ecosystems allowing for animals that weren't well suited for the changing environment before to become well adapted and ready to handle natures next twists and turns.

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