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.
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."
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.