A summer that parched bear habitat across the West has also been a bloodier one in terms of conflicts between humans and black bears.
The most tragic occurred in Utah, where 11-year-old Samuel Ives was carried off by a black bear from the tent where he slept while camping with his family at American Fork Canyon in June. But it wasn’t the only violent encounter between humans and black bears this year. The bruins have taken on outdoorsmen in Montana. As recently as Tuesday, a bear attacked an elk hunter, but it was unclear if it was a grizzly or a black bear. In Colorado, black bears took swipes at people in their homes.
The growing conflicts arise partly because more people are living and playing in bear habitat. But some wildlife officials say black bears are also becoming more aggressive as they get used to a steady diet of human food. Add to the mix the threat of global warming wreaking havoc on bear habitat, and problems between humans and bears could become even more frequent.
Black bears are often considered docile compared to grizzlies, but they’re no teddy bears.
“A black bear, pound for pound, is just as capable of hurting you as a grizzly bear,” said Kirk Robinson, director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, based in Salt Lake City.
While grizzlies tend to be bigger and more temperamental, both are predators, Robinson says, and while neither rely on meat for most of their diets, both are carnivores, and both are powerful.
“You don’t want either one of them mad at you,” he says.
The Rockies have seen more and more people living in bear habitat, as urban areas spread into the hinterland and mountain towns boom. As more people move in, more also head into the mountains to recreate. The result is more homes in bear habitat and more people playing in bear habitat.
Meanwhile, 2007 was a tough summer for bruins. Drought throughout much of the West left slim pickings of acorns and berries that bears rely on. In some areas, early frosts dealt an extra blow to the crop.
“When there’s less food for bears, the first thing they do in the spring is, they move downhill from hibernation to where the land is greening up earlier and start feeding on grasses and seeds and roots,” Robinson says. “That only goes so far. … Then they start looking for food in other places.”
The problem is made worse by humans leaving garbage and birdfeeders outside their homes, and leaving messy campsites in the woods. Robinson blames most of the problems with bears on humans, for not learning how to live in bear country.
He also puts some blame on the Forest Service for not shutting down the remote campsite where Samuel Ives was killed before the tragedy, what wildlife officials believe was the state’s first-ever fatality caused by a black bear. Earlier, a camper reported that a bear had swiped at his head while he slept in his tent, but he was uninjured and a search didn’t turn up the bear.
A state wildlife official told the Salt Lake Tribune the bear was probably attracted by to the campsite by the smell of food; hadn’t come looking to prey on humans. But when the bear found the 11-year-old boy in his tent, it killed him and carried him some 400 yards away, the Tribune reported.
On Tuesday, the Associate Press reported, a hunter near Corwin Springs said he was “slapped by a bear.” The encounter damaged his nose and face and knocked one eye out of its socket. The hunter, Virgil Massey, 52, of Barstow, Calif., was taken to a Billings hospital, but it wasn’t clear if it was a black bear or a grizzly.
In August, the AP reports, Dan Root, of Billings, was sleeping outside his tent at a KOA campground near West Yellowstone when a black bear nibbled his leg. A wildlife official dismissed it as a “minor” encounter, probably a bear testing to see if the man was alive or not, but Root told a reporter he should have been warned.
“If the bear hadn’t bit me, I probably wouldn’t have ever bothered with it, but if it’s aggressive enough to grab someone’s leg in the middle of the night, they need to say something about that,” he said.
In Hungry Horse, a state wildlife worker was bitten on the elbow by a black bear as he set grizzly traps as part of a bear monitoring program.
Encounters haven’t just been by outdoors people. In Colorado, run-ins came happened indoors. In Aspen, where a family of roaming black bears prompted officials to cordon off the downtown pedestrian mall at one point, a black bear swiped a woman in her face at her home after she surprised it in her kitchen. In nearby Old Snowmass, a man took a blow from a black bear as he startled it in his garage.
“In 99.9 percent of the times that people are going to see bears, the bears are going to respond in a typical manner,” says Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “They move away from people. They don’t like being around people. They tend to be really shy animals.”
But that’s changing, Hampton says, as bears get used to easy pickings from garbage cans, birdfeeders and refrigerators. Human food not only makes bears more likely to hang around humans, he says. It makes them bolder. Suddenly, he says, the human environment becomes bear habitat, and bears aren’t shy about defending their habitat.
“There are bears out there that are more likely to become a problem bear because they’ve become conditioned to it,” he says.
By mid-September, the state DOW had counted a record 1,136 bear encounters. It’s not unusual for some years to be worse than others, but those spikes are happening more frequently, Hampton says, and global warming predictions suggest they could get worse. Climatologists warn not just of hotter, drier summers in parts of the West, but of shorter winters. As plants start to bud earlier, it raises the danger of an early frost killing them off, leaving bears short on food.
“We’ve certainly got our eyes open to the idea that this kind of conflict could become more frequent,” Hampton says.
Wildlife advocates say that puts the onus on humans to be more careful as more and more move into bear habitat, and bear habitat becomes sparser.
“Encounters with black bears, and black bears that can be aggressive, are there,” says Billie Gutgsell, Bear Aware program assistant, for the Boulder, Colo.-based carnivore protection group Sinapu. “They’re just not as common, and maybe they’re just not as sexy, as grizzly encounters.”