Predator Attacks Escalate as Americans Encroach on Wildlife Habitat

Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service
August 27, 2001

It has been a year of jaws and claws: Sharks biting surfers, alligators dragging away toddlers, bears mauling campers, and cougars attacking skiers and bicyclists.

Actually, 2001 is not much different from last year despite several high-profile incidents, but the trend over the past decade is strikingly clear: Close encounters of the predator kind are on a definite upswing and so are injuries and deaths.

The 1990s was the worst decade ever for shark, bear, alligator, and cougar attacks in North America. Deaths and injuries to people from all four of these large predators are still extremely rare but not as rare as they once were.

While there are several factors behind the phenomenon, wildlife experts say the overriding reason for the increase is that there are simply a lot more people than there used to be and they are encroaching on wildlife habitat everywhere.

From urban sprawl along Colorado's Front Range to luxury retreats near Yellowstone National Park to surfing along Florida's shores, people are increasingly living, working and playing in close proximity to predators.

Another factor is that some predators are increasing their numbers once again, recovering from earlier decades in which they were widely persecuted.

"Considering the large populations of humans and predators co-existing in the same areas, it is not surprising that large predators injure some people," said Michael Conover, director of the Jack Berryman Institute at Utah State University, which researches people-wildlife conflicts.

"What is really amazing is that so few people are attacked," Conover writes in a forthcoming wildlife biology textbook. "Why don't hungry cougars and bears commonly prey upon humans, especially children? People are much easier to catch and kill than deer or elk and are more abundant."

Florida is World Shark Bite Capital

Sharks have been the focus of the greatest attention this year, with highly publicized attacks in Florida and the Bahamas. There were 536 shark attacks worldwide in the 1990s, continuing an upward trend exhibited throughout the 20th century, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.

"There are simply more humans in the water," said George Burgess, director of the shark attack file. "We can count on this trend to continue in this century unless shark populations decline even greater than they already have or people stop going in the water or we solve the world population problem."

Florida is the shark bite capital of the world with 220 unprovoked attacks between 1990 and 2000, but only two fatalities. It's also the home of more alligators, and the site of more alligator attacks, than anywhere else.

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