75% of killings by black bears are in remote areas

February 14, 2010 - 7:53 PM CST

In the February 12 update, we mentioned that 63 people have been killed by black bears across North America since 1900. We said there is no good explanation why 1 black bear out of a million kills someone.

A reader asked "Were the killings in places where black bears had grown used to humans and perhaps been hand-fed by them." This question goes to so many misconceptions about black bears that we want to do several updates to answer it. The short answer is "No, most were not. As we will show, habituation and food-conditioning are not major factors causing black bears to kill people."

To start the longer answer, we did an analysis a couple years ago of the 60 killings that had occurred from 1900 through 2007. To summarize that analysis, killings were fewest in the areas where black bears and people mingled the most. The numbers showed that only 3 (5%) of the 60 killings were in the bear ranges of the 19 eastern states where 101,000 black bears live among 122 million people, but 45 (75%) of the killings were in the remote areas of Canada and Alaska where black bears and people live at such low densities that black bears have little chance to get used to people and be fed by them.

For further analysis, we singled out the areas with the highest number of killings and compared them with the areas with the highest densities of bears and people. 

The black bear ranges of British Columbia and Ontario accounted for 24 (40%)of the 60 killings but have such low densities of black bears and people--only 0.35 black bears per square mile living among only 3.5 people per square mile--that chances of bears becoming habituated and food-conditioned are low.

The areas where bears and people mingle the most are probably in the 11 counties of Pennsylvania and New Jersey where 1.5 black bears live among 328 people per square mile. Compared with British Columbia and Ontarior, the bear ranges of Pennsylvania and New Jersey have 4.3 times the density of black bears and 94 times the density of people. But Pennsylvania and New Jersey have had no killings.

However, there exists another difference between those two areas, which we'll discuss next time.

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—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center