Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black Bear Attacks: The 411

I've been wanting to write this particular blog for quite awhile. On a weekly basis, people find my Web site while doing searches for 'black bear attacks' in Virginia or Shenandoah National Park. I already have some of the below information on my site, but I wanted to expand this subject a bit further.

Black bears are docile and attacks on humans are rare. They are not usually aggressive animals and they will only become hostile if they are provoked, feel threatened or are injured (as with being wounded by a gunshot from a hunter - read this local news story).

In Virginia, there are no recorded fatal attacks on humans. Unprovoked bear attacks are also very rare, and have never been documented anywhere in Virginia. As for any bear attacks in Shenandoah National Park's history, there have only been some minor incidents (e.g. a researcher in the late 80's that got a swat from a bear that he was releasing from a snare trap).

Several attacks have occurred recently on public land in Tennessee. In May 2000, a 50 year old woman became the first person killed by a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A black bear attacked a family in the Cherokee National Forest in April 2006, killing a 6 year old girl and injuring her mother and brother. A black bear injured an 8 year old boy in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 2008.

Fatal attacks overall by Black Bears on humans are quite rare. To date, only 60 people have been killed in Black Bear attacks across North America since 1900, and 45 of those deaths took place in Alaska or Canada, where there is usually little contact between bears and people. The fatal attacks that have occurred were primarily unprovoked, predatory assaults in remote areas in which the victim was eaten. There is no consistent explanation why 1 out of every 1/2 million Black Bears becomes a human predator.

The biggest problem facing black bears is that many people attribute grizzly bear characteristics to them. Due to this and also the negative media from newspapers, magazines and/or Hollywood movies, the black bear has been unfairly tagged with a bad image, causing people to fear them more than necessary.

However, the black bear is an incredible animal and has many unique qualities which has allowed it to exist and evolve for millions of years. Their apprehension is often mistaken for aggression. Generally they are shy and will usually turn and amble away when approached. Their seemingly timid disposition is attributed to their earlier co-existence with more larger, powerful predators which necessitated being passive. They survived by being ready to flee, often to a tree.

During the Ice Age, they lived among powerful predators like saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, American lions, and giant short-faced bears, none of which could climb trees. Therefore black bears developed the timid personality of a prey animal, an inherited trait that remains with them today, even though those larger predators no longer roam the Earth.

This timid behavior is most observed when a black bear becomes nervous. They will become vocal with woofing (blowing) and jaw popping sounds. They will slap the ground, at brush or at tree limbs. They also tend to showcase bluff charges that ends without contact. These explosive behaviors look and sound very threatening but are usually only harmless blusters from a bear experiencing anxiety and means that it is nervous or unsure and wants more space. Mother bears are probably the most nervous bears, so they show a lot of bluster, which can seem ferocious to a fearful person. A bear's reactions to any situation is interpreted differently by many individuals, it is all dependant upon how the individual perceives a bear and how much fear they actually hold within due to that perception. But just the same, the black bear is a wild animal and needs to be respected. Any of the above signs is a signal for you to slowly leave the area and to not upset the bear any further.

Click on image for larger view

Click on image for larger view

The majority of black bears at Shenandoah National Park will usually run away when encountering people, but several are somewhat tolerant of the presence of humans in their vicinity, as long as their individual 'personal space' or 'comfort zone' is not invaded. But you should not treat this tolerance lightly and think it is okay to get closer. Always keep in mind that they are wild animals. Even the most 'conditioned' wild animals have their off moments, most notably the whale at Sea World, the tiger from the 'Siegfried and Roy' show in Las Vegas, or the movie bear Rocky, just to name a few. Wild animals do not think or reason at the same level as people do. They do not know of man's laws, only the law of the wild. By following some basic bear safety guidelines and using some common sense, you won't risk the chance of becoming a statistic.

The above video shows nervous black bear cubs making blustery pounces (followed by adults making the same displays)

The above video was provided by the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota (the organization who recently placed a live web cam near a pregnant sow's den - see last month's blog). Although I have a great amount of appreciation for Professor Lynn Rogers and the black bear research he has done over the past few decades, I am a bit cautious about some of the recent material he has written. Particularly statements like this regarding common sound advice which is posted regularly by all wildlife agencies across the U.S.:

"Realizing how little science and how little first-hand experience is behind the well-meaning advice, we have tested as much of it as possible. We have not found a way to reliably elicit an attack. In fact, in 43 years, we've never been attacked, even when holding screaming cubs in our hands with mother bears present. We've seen lots of bluff charges, but no attacks. The closest we've come to eliciting attacks is when we tackled bears, which we quit doing decades ago. Of course, the bears bit and clawed their way free, but then they ran instead of attacking."

I have also read some of his statements about coming into close contact with a mother and cubs or coming between a mother and cubs are not dangerous and are misconceptions. He has also stated that "we routinely catch cubs by hand to ear-tag them. Captured cubs screamed for help in our hands. We saw a lot of bluff charges, of course, but no mother bear made contact".

Well, I for one do not agree with these statements, and by him posting these type of statements, it may 'plant a seed' and make some people 'throw caution to the wind' around black bears in our national and state parks/forests. The one main reason that I am in disagreeance is because the black bears that he spends time with for research are 'habituated' bears. A habituated bear is a much different bear than a true wild bear, and therefore their reactions are going to be much different. As you can see from his Web site, these bears wear collars and two videos clearly show him feeding the bears. I don't get it, Charlie Vandergaw was condemned for feeding bears in order to establish relationships with bears. I don't think that the above methods stated by Professor Rogers would go over too well with a true wild bear. I'd love to see him come to Shenandoah National Park to try and catch a cub while its mother is around, or attempt to put a collar on one!

Regardless of the disagreement that I have with these statements, Professor Rogers has done a lot of research over the years which has provided a lot of information and insight about black bears that no one else has been able to. I just don't feel comfortable about some people possibly getting the wrong message from some of those posted statements as it pertains to true wild black bears.

Bottom line: wild black bears are not as aggressive as their counterpart the grizzly, but when they feel threatened they will display one or more blustery acts in an effort to ward you off. Depending upon the particular bear's persona is how much explosive behavior will be displayed. And there's always the chance that any given bear on any given day could 'snap' and go for an outright attack. Heck, just a paw swat has a lot of power behind it, and not to mention how much damage those big clws would do if they come in contact with flesh.

In closing this month's blog, always respect any wild animal when you encounter it, especially the black bear. And please don't attempt to feed them - let's keep them wild!

Did you know? Across North America, dogs kill 16 times more people than do black, grizzly, and polar bears combined! According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, for every person killed by a Black Bear in North America, 60 are killed by domestic dogs, 24 from snakebites, 180 by bees and wasps, and 350 by lightning.

For more black bear photos, information and video clips, visit the black bears section of my Web site.