Bear attacks: not what you think

Posted on: May 3, 2016 | Bob Frye | Comments

Blog--Bear attackBear attacks are exceptionally rare, but do occur, for various reasons based on location and species.

This was, by all indications, the classic case of maternal instincts playing out in horrific fashion in the wild.

In April, Forest Wagner, a University of Alaska Southeast professor, led a group of students on a backcountry hike near Haines as part of a mountaineering class. At one point he went ahead of the group to figure out the best path down the mountain.

He ran into a mother brown bear with at least one cub. According to Associated Press reports, the bear – apparently startled by his appearance and protective of her young – mauled him, leaving him with substantial leg injuries.

Wagner, 35, had to be flown off the mountain. He was still in the hospital, his condition upgraded from critical to serious, at last report.

None of the other 11 people on the outing were injured.

Those kinds of encounters between people and bears aren’t unheard of.

But they are different from what outdoorsmen and women potentially have to worry about here, in black bear country.

North America is home to an estimated 900,000 black bears, by some accounts. Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists put the number living in this state at an all-time high of around 20,000. They include some of the largest in the world.

Females typically top out at 250 or so pounds, given that so much of their energy goes to breeding and/or raising cubs almost continuously once they reach sexual maturity.

Males have been known to exceed 800 pounds, though. And those, according to some research, are the bears to keep an eye on.

According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Wildlife Management, there were 59 black bear attacks on people resulting in 63 human deaths between 1900 and 2009. Few were the result of mothers protecting cubs.

The study found that in 88 percent of fatalities, the bear involved was looking to get a meal, and in 92 percent of cases it was a male bear doing the hunting.

“Most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and all fatal attacks were carried out by a single bear,” said lead researcher Stephen Herrero, now retired from the University of Calgary.

Researchers also determined that bears that have previously killed people are more likely to attack again; parties of more than two people are much less likely to be attacked; and human food and garbage tends to attract bears and may increase the likelihood of serious bear attacks.

More attacks occurred in Alaska and Canada than anywhere else, even though there are fewer people living in those places, Herrero wrote. He attributed that to scarce food supplies, which stresses bears, and increasing outdoor recreation.

Attacks can occur anywhere, though. In 2014, a black bear attacked and partially consumed a hiker in New Jersey.

Fatal black bear attacks are becoming more frequent, too. Eight-six percent of those known have occurred since 1960.

They’re still very rare, Herrero wrote, but “while the risk is low, it does exist.”

Anyone being approached or even attacked by what seems to be a predatory bear should fight back, he advised.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.