2002-09-21 - Response to recent bear attacks

Our research emphasis again this summer was bear conservation in their increasingly urban environment.  We are continuing to study the bear-human interface to better understand how bears and people can coexist.  Improving public understanding of bears is the key to coexistence and healthy bear populations. 

Our goal in public education is to replace misconceptions with facts in order to develop a more realistic public attitude toward black bears.  The opening of the Bear Store and its new bear exhibit "Into the Hidden World of Bears" gave new opportunities for education.  Within three days, the exhibit was viewed by people from nearly every state and province.  We used the store as the base for a weekly half-hour live radio program called "The Bear Facts."  The live audience in the Bear Store asked questions, and people phoned in questions.  The program was broadcast locally on WELY and could be heard over the internet at http://www.wely.com/ .  We held summer lecture series called "Bear Nights" with weekly lectures on bears at the local school auditorium. 

The two unfortunate bear attacks in the news in the last month generated further attention to bears.  The North American Bear Center received many calls from the media, which led to many interviews with newspaper reporters, TV reporters, and radio talk show hosts.  Any bear attack is sensationalized in the media, and our goal was to put these rare attacks in perspective.  

The first incident made national news when a bear foraging through a resort area in upstate New York took five-month-old Ester Schwimmer from a baby carriage and started carrying her off.  The bear dropped the baby and moved off when people approached and threw things at the bear.  The baby died of the injuries.  Why would a bear do this?  It is like trying to explain why a trusted family pet dog decides to eat the baby that is left in the room with the pet.  Maybe the baby smells of milk or some other favorite food.  Maybe it's a reason no one ever thought of.  The fact is that for each person killed by a black bear, 45 are killed by dogs, but it is the bear incident that makes the national news.  The slant is usually to sensationalize it in the name of warning the public about the menace from the bears that are increasingly living among us. 

For example, Chris from Good Morning America asked me, "What about all these attacks lately?"  I said, "There was the baby in New York, but what other attacks?"  He said, "All these bears taking down bird feeders and coming into people's yards and scaring them."  I said, "The people are afraid because we all grow up with misconceptions, but a bear in a yard is not an attack.  Only two people have been killed in the eastern US in the last hundred years."  He said, "Let me talk to my boss a minute.  I'll call you back."  A few minutes later, GMA called and said they were getting a different expert. 

My interview with USA Today newspaper began with similar questions, but that reporter stayed with me for a good interview, and I believe he will write a balanced article. 

Standard statistics for each interview: 

  • The baby was the 50th killing by a black bear in the last hundred years across North America. 
  • Most killings were in northern Canada and Alaska where bears have little contact with people.  Only two, including this one, were in the eastern US where bears and people mingle the most. 
  • There are about 750,000 black bears in North America with less than one killing per year. 
  • According to the Department of Justices in the US and Canada, about one person in 16,000 commits murder each year.  For grizzly bears, about one in 50,000 kills someone.  For black bears, it is less than one black bear in a million. 
  • For each person killed by a black bear across North America, there are 13 people killed by snakes, 45 by dogs, 120 by bees, 250 by lightning, and 60,000 homicides. 
  • In 35 years of working closely with black bears, I have never had one come after me to hurt me.  The only time I have been bitten is when I initiated the contact. 

A couple weeks after giving the above statistics to the press showing that attacks are rare, the media wanted comments regarding another attack, this one nonfatal.  Miles Becker, a 24-year-old woodcock researcher from Cornell University, was radio-tracking woodcocks near Milaca in central Minnesota.  He was wearing earphones and listening to the static and beeps of radio signals.  The first he knew of the bear is when it hit him, he said.  He fought it for a couple minutes and then played dead.  Immediately, the bear ceased attacking and left, showing that it was not a predatory attack.  In a predatory attack, playing dead would be an invitation to dinner.  The fact that the bear stopped fighting when Miles stopped fighting suggests that the bear was a mother with cubs or a wounded bear, both of which would be classified as defensive attacks.  Attacks in either situation are very rare. 

In an attack by a mother bear, the object is to neutralize an immediate threat.  When the person stops fighting, the bear dares to gather the cubs and exit.  I have never heard of a defensive attack turning into a predatory attack.  Attacks by mother black bears are very rare.  The notion that a mother black bear is likely to defend her cubs against people is one of the biggest misconceptions about black bears.  Defending cubs is a grizzly trait.  Seventy percent of the approximately 80 killings by grizzly bears in the last hundred years have been mothers defending their cubs, but there is no record of anyone being killed by a mother black bear defending her cubs.  In my experience, I have frequently caught cubs in front of their mothers.  The cubs are screaming in my hands.  The mothers typically bluff-charge to about 20 feet and retreat.  I have never had one make contact.  The three previous attacks I heard of by mother black bears and most attacks by mother grizzly bears ended when the person lay still.  A difference between black and grizzly bears is that black bear cubs run to trees for refuge and grizzly cubs run to their mothers.  The difference is probably due to black bears evolving in forests and grizzly bears evolving in more open country. 

Attacks by wounded black bears are also rare.  Each year, between 6,000 and 7,000 bears are wounded during hunting seasons across North America, generally with no attacks.  This number of wounded bears is based on a thirteen percent wounding loss with an annual hunting kill of 55,000 bears across North America.  Wounded bears just want to be left alone in their pain and heal in peace.  If they can move, they seek a secluded thicket near water and just lie there.  If disturbed, their usual reaction is to hobble away.  There can be exceptions to nearly everything.  The attack on Miles Becker came fifteen days into the Minnesota bear hunting season.  Approximately 1,500 bears had been killed by that date, and probably a couple hundred wounded.  I can imagine a scenario in which Miles is walking along with earphones intent on radio-tracking woodcocks which inhabit moist areas.  The habitat is typically dense alders with little visibility.  He stumbles onto a wounded bear that has sought that habitat for its shade, coolness, and water.  Injuries make it difficult for the bear to move away.  Perhaps the bear's senses are dulled by fever.  Suddenly, Miles is upon the bear without knowing it.  The bear doesn't dare turn its back on an adversary so close, so it attacks and finds itself in a fight with a flailing and kicking human.  Finally, the human lies still and the bear dares to turn its back and hobble away.

In the aftermath, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources set a culvert live trap to catch the bear and kill it, but no bear entered the trap.  If the bear was a mother with cubs, it could have moved up to five miles away, or farther.  She probably would never find herself in a situation to attack again.  If it is a wounded bear, it could be lying nearby, dead or healing.  After a few days without a capture, the DNR brought in hounds and set additional live traps with the goal of killing all the bears for several miles around and doing DNA tests to determine which was the attacker.  By then, sun and rain had eliminated the scent trail of the attack bear.  If it is wounded, it is probably not yet traveling, foraging, or leaving a trail.  This would leave the hounds to find only the fresh trails of any healthy bears that happen to live in the area.  It is possible, nevertheless, that the right bear might be killed and identified by its DNA.  Then another piece will be in place in the mystery of why the bear attacked Miles Becker. 

In our Ely study area, heavy hunting pressure has kept us on edge for the safety of the seven radio-collared bears.  Last year, Charlie and Sue Ragan mobilized the neighborhood, and several dozen volunteers worked in shifts to ask hunters not to shoot radio-collared bears.  This year, the Ragans had a health problem that prevented them from making such a generous commitment of time again.  So we are relying on signs put up by Ben Thwaits and Angela Bobeldyk asking hunters' cooperation.  We felt that with over 20,000 bears in Minnesota, hunters would be willing to pass up seven radio-collared bears that enable tens of millions of people to learn about bears each year.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helped by including a request in each hunter information packet asking them not to shoot radio-collared bears.  Our faith in hunters and guides was shaken when word reached us that some of them were taking down the signs and throwing them in the brush.  We had to do more to protect the bears.  Hunters in Minnesota hunt bears primarily by luring them to bait piles.  They began placing their baits on August 16th in anticipation of the September 1 opening of the Minnesota bear season.  We began baiting, too.  With the help of a couple sponsors and Charlie Meyer, we were able to put out top natural foods that most hunters could not afford or take the time to gather.  Hunters were baiting to kill the bears, and our group of sponsors and volunteers were baiting to save them.  So far, we have not heard of any hunter seeing a radio-collared bear.  To date, all are alive and we are starting to breathe a sigh of relief.  Most bears are taken in the first two weeks of the six-week season, and we are nearly through the third week. 

Mother Nature is helping, too.  The late spring delayed blossoming until the chance of a late frost killing the blossoms was minimized.  When the bear foods finally blossomed a couple weeks late, blossom survival was high and natural food was abundant this year.  Tent caterpillars were not abundant enough to excessively defoliate the berry and nut bushes.  Bears prefer fresh vine-ripened raw nuts and berries over about anything we can offer as bait.  Hunters are reporting bears walking past their baits without any indication of interest.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources set a harvest goal of 4,000 bears, but with the abundant natural food, the kill may be less than 2,000. 

ADDENDUM:  The moose referred to in our previous update that was seen with two calves -- on of which was injured -- was spotted two days later with only one calf.