Conflicts With Bears In North America Are Rising Concerningly Fast

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Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies

Both Grizzly bear and black bear populations are growing rapidly in the continental U.S.

The range for grizzly bears is expanding out of the heart of Yellowstone National Park and brown bear populations are thriving in Alaska. Now the big bears are un-coincidentally finding conflicts with people more and more often.

It’s a similar story for black bears whose populations are recovering throughout much of their native range, which increasingly now includes suburbs and other areas of human development. While conflicts with black bears oftentimes not perceived as dangerous, the potential for situations where people and bears are directly interacting is certainly dangerous.

According to The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, most black bear conflicts stem from bears changing their natural behavior due to human introduced food sources like garbage dumpsters, dog food, bird feeders, domestic poultry, or fruit trees and gardens.  Limiting the access that bears have to supplemental food sources like that is the number one step people who live alongside black bears can take in reducing conflicts.

Managing conflicts with grizzlies is a much more contentious and complex issue though.

Conflicts Highlight Status of Grizzly Bears On Endangered Species List

Black bears have never been placed under protection from the federal Endangered Species Act so the species is managed by fish and wildlife agencies in the respective states where the bears roam. However, grizzlies are another story.

Grizzly bears have been responsible for a large majority of the fatal bear attacks and dangerous bear encounters throughout history. Brown bears in Alaska are managed by the state wildlife agency, but grizzlies in the lower 48-states have been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1975 due to their status on the Endangered Species List.

At that time there were only an estimated 700-800 grizzlies in continental U.S.

Thanks to some heroic conservation efforts, today there are more than 2,000 bears. With the grizzly population recovered to such a robust level, the idea of delisting the bears from federal protection is gaining steam as an option for further managing the species in accordance with increased conflict mitigation efforts being lead by state agencies instead of the federal government.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is reportedly considering delisting grizzlies in the Yellowstone area because their population is biologically stable. Its an idea supported by Kevin Frey, a long-time Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Grizzly Bear Management Specialist and someone with extensive experience working with human-grizzly conflicts. Frey was part of the crew that euthanized a grizzly responsible for one the fatal attacks in Montana earlier this summer.

“We worked hard for geez, 40 years, to get them to recovery level. We’ve met all the criteria years ago. What hangs up the delisting are concerns over other factors, but we’ve met the recovery requirements.

With the safeguards that we have in place to make sure that the population doesn’t get into trouble and crash again, I think it’s fine. Yeah, grizzly bears should be delisted.”

Best Defense: Bear Spray or a Pistol? 

With more bears on the landscape, it’s more important know than ever to be prepared for a potential bear encounter, especially if you’re someone who spends time enjoying the great outdoors.  With bear conflicts increasing, it’s more important now than ever to be bear being bear aware while recreating in bear country.

The National Park Service has published information on staying safe while in bear country and tips on what to do in case you’re ever attacked by a bear.

  • Identify yourself by voice and stand your ground and wave your arms so the bear can process that you’re a person and not a prey species.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears are more curious than threatening. Do not scream, make any sudden movements, or try to outrun the bear as it could trigger a predatory response.
  • Always hike and recreate in groups while in bear country.
  • Make yourself look as large as possible by flaring clothing or standing on top of higher ground.
  • Do not allow the bear to access food. Bears will get more aggressive if food is part of the equation.
  • Do not drop your backpack, it can act as a first line of defense against a bear mauling.
  • Leave the area by moving away slowly and in a sideways direction while keeping your eye on the bear as you exit the vicinity.

The best way to handle a bear encounter was showcased earlier this spring by a jogger in Wyoming as he kept his distance, raised his voice, and backed slowly away from from a potentially threatening black bear. The peace of mind he had thanks to a can of bear spray allowed him to stay calm during the heat of the moment.

If a bear encounter turns into an attack, it’s important to handle the situation differently depending on the type of bear attacking.

With a grizzly bear, your best option is to play dead and lay flat on your stomach with your hands protecting the back of your neck. Remain still until the bear leaves the area, as fighting back tends to increase the severity of attacks. However, if the attack persists beyond the initial charge then fight back with whatever objects you can get your hands on.

It’s important that you not play dead if attacked by black bear though. Try to escape by any means possible and fight back with kicks and punches to the bears face and snout.

Being prepared with other defensive measures in bear country can also prevent attacks from turning dangerous and you should consider familiarizing yourself with bear spray or a firearm if you spend a lot of time adventuring out into bear country.

Both bear spray and pistols have proven to be successful deterrents for aggressive bears, and as Clay Newcomb from The MeatEater demonstrated whichever option your most comfortable using in the heat of the moment is the best option for you.

Bear Attacks Are On The Rise In 2021

So far, 2021 has been one of the worst years for bear attacks in documented history, and according to Field and Stream the trends may only be getting worse.

There have been six fatal bear attacks in North America so far this year.

  • April 17th: A backcountry guide and wildlife photographer was mauled to death by a grizzly bear that was defending a moose carcass. Officials dispatched the bear responsible for the attack and it showed signs of having recently fought with another bear so it was particularly aggressive.
  • April 30th:  A woman was killed and consumed by a black bear and  two cubs. It was only the third lethal bear attack in Colorado in the past 50 years. All three of the bears involved were euthanized.
  • May 4th: A University of Calgary professor was chased down by a grizzly bear during a trail run and while struggling to escape from the bear attack, he fell down an almost 1,000 foot embankment and perished. The attacking bear was never located.
  • May 25h: A 68-year-old woman was mauled to death by grizzly bear. An older bear with worn down teeth was put down for the attack but DNA testing revealed it was not actually the bear responsible.
  • July 6th: A lady camping in Montana was ripped from a tent in the middle of the night and killed by a grizzle bear near the town of Ovando, Montana. The bear also raided a chicken coop after the attack. Officials were able to eliminate the bear with the use of a night vision scope as it was raiding another chicken coop a week later.
  • July 31: A 26-year old woman was working on a reforestation project in a remote region of Alberta when she was fatally attacked by a black bear. Authorities were able to quickly locate and dispatch the attacking bear.

While the number of fatal attacks is relatively somewhat high, it is on par with other years that have seen a similar number of fatal attacks.

However, non-fatal but negative encounters with bears are rising rapidly in the lower 48 and it has researchers concerned.  The driving forces behind the trend is mainly believed to be the growing grizzly bear populations in the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem. There are now more grizzlies on the western U.S. landscape than at any point since 1970s and the bears also occupy a wider range than those days.

The recovery of the grizzlies in the region is a true conservation success story, but such a robust population of both black and grizzly bears now sharing the landscape with so many people comes with costs according to Frank T. van Maanen, a Supervisory Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Conflicts tend to increase in areas where bears are increasing in numbers and expanding their range—as we have seen for American black bears throughout North America in recent decades, and particularly during years of natural food shortages.

For grizzly bears, we have documented an increase in the number of human-bear conflicts in areas like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where they have expanded their range about three-fold over four decades and increasingly occupy areas where human use and influence on the landscape is greater.”

Hilary Cooley, the Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service echoed those same sentiments and also explained that mitigating bear conflicts can be difficult on private land where state and federal wildlife management agencies don’t have jurisdiction. That leaves reducing bear conflicts to the responsibility of state and local governments and municipalities that aren’t as well equipped to handle those situations.

She also said that a lot of these conflicts can be eliminated if some of the most simple bear awareness protocols are followed by more people.

“Some people don’t even realize that there can be grizzly bears around. 

We have more people moving to the West. We have more people recreating in grizzly bear territory. There’s record visitation at National Park Service and Forest Service areas. Every biologist I talk to is like ‘there are people camped all over the place.’

And a lot of people are coming from elsewhere and don’t know that their gas grill or cooler that they leave on the picnic table on the campsite will be a potential bear attractant. Most of those conflicts are preventable.”

Most bear attacks are triggered by people inciting a bears defense mechanisms by getting to close to a mother bear’s cubs or accidentally stumbling upon a grizzly protecting a deer or elk carcass it was consuming.

A lot of other bear attacks, like the most recent brown bear attack in Alaska, take place in dense brush where bears attack quickly from close proximity in areas of low visibility.

In addition to the fatal bear attacks, there has been a long list of notable non-fatal bear attacks in North America this year as well, a trend that is putting more and more focus on the development of management strategies that allow bear populations to continue expanding while also taking into account public safety.

  • May 18th: An Alaskan man was surveying land when a bear attacked him. His face and head were badly injured and he bled profusely while waiting for help to arrive on the scene.
  • May 31st: A 17-year-old California girl rushed a bear and knocked it off a fence in her backyard to save her dogs from attack.
  • June 16th: A group of bears chased woman off of a hiking trail in Alaska. She wound up getting lost in the wilderness while trying to escape and she went missing for a day and a half.
  • June 16th: A bear attacked a 16-year old girl as she slept in a hammock in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The bear was quickly euthanized by parks officials.
  • June 24th: A California homeowner killed a bear that broke into his home in search of food.
  • June 27th: A brown bear charged an Alaska man after being provoked by his dog. The dog went missing after the attack and the man was forced to jump into the Kenai River in order to escape the attacking bear.
  • August 10th: Two hikers were attacked by a grizzly new Yellowstone National Park but were able to escape with just minor injuries.
  • August 10th: An extremely rare polar bear attack in a Nunavut village almost cost 3 people their lives.
  • August 19th: A field technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was bitten on the leg by a coastal brown bear before his coworker dropped the bear with a 12-gauge slug

There have also been numerous other incidents of human bear conflicts that were not necessarily attacks, but further highlight just how emboldened black bears are seemingly getting around humans. Stories like instances of bears swiping packages off of porches, camping out under a deck, being  raiding picnics and swimming at Lake Tahoe, or stealing backpacks, or stealing firearms, or vandalizing cars, or chilling on a couch, or relaxing in a hot tub, or cruising downhill with mountain bikers, and crashing pool parties. 

While many of them are entertaining its important to note that many of these situations could have been far more dangerous for both the people and bears involved had circumstances been different, and its important to keep in mind that black bears are potentially dangerous wild animals that should be given space and respect at all times.

The Most Dangerous Time Of The Year For Bear Attacks Is Just Beginning

Despite the the high number of human-bear conflicts already this year, some experts speculate the worst may still be yet to come and its extremely important for hunters to be extremely vigilant about bear safety this time of year, particular in grizzly country where some of the best elk hunting opportunities are found.

The fall is when bears enter a stage of their lifecycle called hyperphagia where they lower their inhibitions and go after whatever food sources they can find in hopes of packing calories before winter. Its the same time of year that hunters venture into the backcountry and find themselves oftentimes hauling out meat directly from bears favorite food sources.

“It’s the season when bears are most focused to find food and gain weight. It’s just like that movie The Perfect Storm. You’ve got all these elements that come together at the same time. They’re the biggest thing in the forest, so they don’t always pay attention to their surroundings. And it’s really easy for hunters to walk right up on a bear.

Archery hunters are being super quiet, everybody’s got full camo on and some kind of scent blocker. 

It’s all the wrong things to do to avoid a bear encounter, but that’s part of the pursuit. When you’re looking for elk or deer, you’ve got to keep an eye out for bear sign.

Be vigilant whether recent incidents have occurred in a particular area or not. Land management and wildlife management agencies in our region provide excellent information for recreationists via their websites, visitor facilities, and trailheads.”

For more information on staying safe in bear country, you can check out this video.

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