Killings: The Conclusion

Update February 19, 2010 – 4:44 PM CST

There are so many misconceptions about bears.  We wrote about a few of them and tried to keep updates short so as not to overwhelm everyone.  But keeping them short meant we couldn’t tell the whole story.  So the feedback we got included comments based on so many related misconceptions that we’re thinking this might not be the forum to deal with subjects that are so ingrained and have so many layers of misconceptions.  Some are simply rumors.  Some are found on state fish and game websites.  Some are even based on quasi-scientific studies, which introduces another topic—the basic lack of science regarding bear-human relations.  With so little science, misconceptions fill the void.  People believe what they believe, and we doubt we can change deeply held opinions with words.  However, Lily can change opinions as people learn directly from her.

So we’ll keep things short here and wind up the discussion on killings.  To summarize, in earlier updates we said there was no good explanation for the 63 killings by black bears since 1900.  We summarized the most common misconceptions and showed that most killings by black bears were not by; bears that had gotten used to people, bears accustomed to getting food from people, mothers defending cubs, bears targeting menstruating women.  Most misconceptions are based on an underlying assumption that black bears would love to attack us if they only dared, which is simply not true.

Many other explanations for killings by black bears have been conjectured.  Instead of writing separate updates about them, we’ll just list them.  None of the following provide solid explanations; wounded bears, cornered bears, sudden encounters, jilted males in mating season, intestinal blockages, roadside bears in national parks, bears that have kids placed on their backs, bears that discover people having sex, bears that sense fear, and bears with grudges.

It’s true that some bears that have killed people have been skinny, but, in many years, whole populations are malnourished without killing anybody.

Some bears that have killed people were carrying injuries, but thousands of bears are wounded during bear-hunting seasons each year across North America without being linked to killings.

We’ve heard many horror stories of parents putting their children on the backs of wild bears—as if that caused death or injury.  The outcomes are seldom mentioned—that the bears typically just shrugged the children off.

The basic explanation for the killings by black bears is predation—the rare bear decides to eat someone. It’s nothing the person did.  The bear is not provoked, not angry, and shows no bluster.  It’s not a case of people luring a bear into a way of life that ends in killing.  It’s just the odd bear, maybe a super-bear that expresses a rare trait, and it’s most often in remote areas where bears and people have little contact.  Thank goodness the trait is rare.  Probably the most interesting question is why it’s so rare, and we could go into that, but that’s another subject.

Our records show 28 killings by black bears from 1900 to 1991 when bear populations were decimated by killing campaigns, and 35 killings from 1992 to 2009.  Bears and people have increased, and people are living, hiking, and camping in bear habitat like never before.  Does that explain the increase?  We’re not sure.  Honestly, we can’t completely explain the recent increase any more than we can explain what makes the very rare black bear decide to eat someone.  However, we do know that there is no solid data to support the explanations usually given.

Our best recommendation:

To avoid worries about the tiny chance of meeting a bad bear, carry pepper spray.

We were the ones who pioneered the use of pepper spray face-to-face against free-ranging black and polar bears and can say that it’s as effective against bears as it is against dogs.  They don’t go away mad, they just go away.  See more at , in a big exhibit at the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, and in the peer-reviewed paper Reactions of free-ranging black bears to Capsaisin spray repellant.

Back to Lily.  The cub is growing.  The views are getting better.  Today there were many good views of Lily’s face and her reaching out to lick snow with her long tongue.  We’re trying to get rid of the hum so we can learn more about the vocalizations.  We’ve tried several fixes.  Now, sponsor Doug Hajicek of White Wolf Entertainment is buying a new microphone and a hundred yards of special cable for us to install.  We’ll see Lily, and hopefully the cub, close-up while you watch their reactions on the web.  We hope she will accept us as calmly as she did before the cub was born.

We are seeing the great names you’re submitting for the cub.  In little over a week we’ll have a hard choice to make!  The naming contest ends at midnight CST on February 27.

Thank you again for your continued support.  We know many of you have donated multiple times and we appreciate that greatly.  We are all (that includes you!) working toward a simple goal—to tell the truth about bears—replace myth with fact.  Lily is doing her part too.

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