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Black bear in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Jim Peaco, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Bear Encounters On the Rise in the West as Food and Habitat Dwindle

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.”

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  1. Oregon does not allow bears to be hunted with dogs. Nor cougars. A 10,000 year relationship between man and dogs was lost at its most basic level, that of mutual acquisition of food. It was an urban driven initiative vote, and the results depict the tyranny of the urban majority outside THEIR habitat. So if a bear comes to eat you in Oregon, it has a better than 50% chance (a voting majority) of dining on a benefactor, and that is a just reward in my mind. It is the fairest of the fair chases, is it not? A bear armed only with 3 inch claws and prodigious strength taking on a lightweight house frau armed with a degree from Smith and much shorter nails. Nature at its best. When the bears run out of elk calves and deer fawns, the low hanging fruit, it is fitting that they, too , go to town to eat. It is the Willy Sutton argument, of course. I rob banks because that is where the money is kept. The bear robs houses because that is where all that food fat America keeps is located. It is working so well around Lake Tahoe that bears are now hibernating under houses. It is their new natural habitat.

    I was outside my home here in the middle of the Willamette Valley last night, and heard a great prairie warbler symphony, with multiple voices. The Urban Coyote song fest. I have to guess that explains a paucity of possums lately, no deer, and no ground nesting birds at all. The apparent coyote food of choice right now appears to be blackberries, although a gopher head showed up on the shop apron. Nobody has seen a cougar close to town lately, but that should change as the blacktail deer rut runs its course. I haven’t seen any bear scat around, and probably won’t. There is a deep, dark secret over on the Weyerhaeuser timberlands, and those of other corporate megapulp treefarms, and that is they employ legal trappers to kill many, many bears each year. Black bears eat the cambium layer of 10-20 year old douglas fir, and seem to show up after a precommercial thinning gives vigor to the remaining trees. They can decimate a plantation, girdling half the stand or more. So trappers set a lot of snares, and kill a lot of bears, all behind locked gates outside the purview of the public. Their friends in the Green Lobby evidently don’t want to kill the money tree in protest. What they really don’t want is those hillbillys chasing bears with dogs, which appears to be a threat to human decency and not in line with anthropomorphic ideals of Ecotopia. So we in town deal with dogs that have only the purpose of being surrogate children, who poop on our lawn. Does every young person have to own a pit bull? I have seen at least three dragging someone down the street on the end of a leash in the last hour or so. In another time, those were the dogs thrown into a pit with a bull or a bear. Bear Baiting!!!!! Golly, what a small world.

  2. Interestingly enough the NPS reported an average white bark crop early this fall. Do you suppose the problem could be that we have been too successful importing, breeding and raising predators? they have to be at historic highs in Yellowstone right now. Certainly there is no question that historic wolf numbers never even approached the number now in the park, in fact they probably never equaled the number hauled in.
    FWS counted 6700 elk left a year ago, the number of wolves as of last year have taken about 200/month. On top of that we have about 600 griz who are in the park at least part of the time. Even when grizzly numbers were high (although not this high) in the 40s and 50s, they were receiving a large amount of their food from dumps. It was the sudden closing of all of those dumps at once that caused the dramatic decline in their numbers due to their attempts to get food in all of the wrong places.
    Early expeditions to explore the park did not mention wolf sightings, they mentioned griz, but not lots of numbers. The predators they mentioned most frequently were the lions and of course the coyotes.
    I suspect this will eventually find a balance, but the repercussions on locals as they are blamed for the decline may be bad, because there is no way the park can continue to support the number of predators presently there.

  3. Marion: we must add that the drought has moved 4 legged prey to the irrigated alfalfa fields, and their surrounds. Naturally the predators, including peoples type, moved down to the surrounds to hunt the 4 legged prey, and that is where the gut piles and wounded are most likely to be found. As to the whitebark seed resource, we should think that there is a finite number of bears that can use that, and if the bear numbers are way up, there is probably some conflict in beardom, and some individuals have moved on to find other sources for the big hungries. The critters are moving to town. I feel that reflects in some areas, the absolute lack of new logging for 20 years, and the maturation of the forest sans openings and cultural fire meadows.

    The first thing the USFS should be burning is their wilderness meadows and adjacent woodlands. Those are firebreaks, needed food resources, and can provide some modicum of safety in a conflagration. And they need to be burned on a fairly frequent schedule if only to maintain their effectiveness as habitat and their integrity of size. Trees will encroach and destroy them, and have in many instances. Besides, our predecessors on this landscape created them, and as such, they are supposed to be preserved under the Antiquities Acts…the USFS needs a butt kicking on that issue.

  4. Enough-Quit blaming everything on global warming. We have always had drought conditions. If we would get back to logging in the National Forrests we would increase the available food for all wild species and they could move back where they belong. Excess Wilderness and no logging areas are probably the biggest reason why wild animals move to town. They cannot eat old forrests and no feed grows in them. If you want to slow so called human global warming then log. Old growth forrest deteriorate and release carbon. Young trees collect and stor carbon. The only food left for wild animals is on logged private land or in town and on ranches.

  5. Incidentally, Trees cut into lumber stor carbon until eventually the house or structure is destroyed and burned. Old forrests are loaded with fuel and when they burn under our existing policies they release all the carbon in one fell swoop. There is not a good reason to stop logging and use Canadian lumber. We have double tree loss. They log and we burn.

  6. I love your point Sweed, how in the world did he get to the habitat if ranchers have it blocked? I am waiting for the answer to that one.
    It is so sad that the greed of these folks blinds them to facts. The earth is designed to be an evolving process of death and birth. that si true of trees the same as humans. Taking the trees when they are mature to use for building speeds up the renewal process.
    Dr. Thomas Sowell has an article out today that points out “making a difference” is not the solution to anything. Libs want to talk everyone into doing exactly as they are told so the libs themselves can have the exclusive use of resources.

  7. Letting the public in really makes sense. Recent Montana example:
    Public entered ranch-shot 4 deer and one horse. Dragged off the deer and left the horse-Got the H__l out of there.

  8. Ranchers are not compensated for every kill, in fact not even for half. Those families carry the burden for the entertainment of wolfers. The little 25-50 bucks you might give to DOW doesn’t even pay for one vet bill that those famileis incur for trying to save a dog or calf.
    Here is one article about studies showing that ranchers lose 5-8 animals for every one “confirmed”. That does not even include the pets they lose in their yards.

    quote:”Kraig Glazier, a district wildlife supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, empathizes with the frustration that Quigley, Stucky and other ranchers are experiencing. He noted that one recent study showed that for every confirmed calf kill by wolves, there’s anywhere from five to eight unconfirmed kills.” end quote.

  9. I posted a link last night to a study showing that ranchers are losing 5-8 head of livestock for every one compensated for.
    I think Freud would have had a ball with all of this intent on the part of so called environementalists to take over control of other people’s property. I can’t help but think the whole thing is based on land envy.

  10. If someone yells “greed” or “greedy”, they are usually suffering from envy–I didn’t get my share. A biting white whine, as it were. They have no sympathy for the red whine…. you took my land. Hacking out a place in the world, and protecting it, is hard, bloody work. Always has been. That is what forums like this are for: to reduce the bloodshed, and make attempts towards civility in the process.

  11. Better to lose a calf than have the place swarmed with officials and iterested parties evaluating their concept of the loss. Rancher time loss following those people around and trying to get paid is significant. The wages of all of the people evaluating and participating in determining the loss exceeds the value of the calf. Just a fake-a-Lou political correct program to pretend that the rancher is compensated. What a crock.

  12. The above comments range from global warming to dog poop to “victimology”, so I will confine my remarks to Oregon forests & answering Sweed & Marion.

    The most biological diverse forests in Oregon are the Old-growth forests followed by mature forests (100 to 200 years). Their species diversity has been measured with mathamatical certainity and they are the most diverse! Compare these diverse forests with the Wal-Mat, 15 to 35 year old, industrial forests that are nothing more than “biological desserts”. There is a reason why bears must be killed in industrial forests because there is nothing to eat but young trees. And make no mistake about it young forests burn hotter & faster than old forests to the point that post fire conditions look like asphalt parking lots while it is rare that fire in Old-Growth forests are “stand replacing”.

    The transcendent value of our western public forests are water, water & water production! Old & mature forests store more water than 2nd growth forests because of the array of diverse plants (moss & lichens & such) and large down logs & coarse woody debris that are “storage vats” for water. Plus mature & old forests are move resilient againist disease as contrasted with homogenous nursery created forests with limited genetic diversity that favors wood production verses disease resistance.

    I am not anti-logging as I have been a forester for 35 years but isn’t there a more middle ground for managing our public forests? In lieu of following Wal-Mart forestry that is totally market driven (“conferious carrot farms”) our public forests should be managed using “biological forest rotations” ranging from 80 to 200 years–that retains the genetic diversity that has evolved thru eons. And the remaining 500 years plus Old-Growth forests should be left in place as logging them is nothing more than “mining”. And yes, we should use an array of silvicultural prescriptions that includes clearcutting, partial cuts, thinnings & seed tree. But by no means should public forests become a mirrow image of industrial forestry.

    And last but not least, I believe that the human condition will be much impoverished if we turn our world into a “vast urbanized human feedlot” devoid of wildlands & all creatures wild & free. From reading some of the above remarks, I believe that the “feedlot vision” dominates much of your thinking.

  13. MW, Surprise, I almost totally agree with you. The problem is that you are too knowledable and reasonable. Urban Voters understand only clear cut or Wilderness. They don’t understand that timber is a renewable resource. It is a crop. It can be your kind of crop or a Weyerhauser kind of crop. Your kind of crop is best for National Forrests. Our current Policy seems to be, no is, don’t use our natural resource. Let it burn and don’t salvage log or evil loggers will set it all on fire. From an envirmental standpoint we do double damage. We burn our timber (and release most of its carbon) and cut Canada’s. If we don’t salvage log we release the balance of the carbon by rot. And by the way, NO Feedlot vision, just let the pendulum swing back to reasonable forest management. Double Clinton’s allowable cut and really sell it. Washington and Oregon could cut that amount forever and not damage the National Forests. British Columbia is not on a sustainable rotation and subsidized lumber from there has a shorter life expectancy than oil.

  14. PS-You are knowledgable so you know that there is nothing for animals to eat in Old forests!

  15. Sweed when you say that “there is nothing for animals to eat in old forests”, I am not sure what animals you are referring to? Every “ecolgical nich” in every habitat is filled to the brim with living organisms.

    Maybe you are just referring to elk & deer. The following is a partial list of plants that grow in old forests that deer & elk & moose eat: Big Leaf Maple, all huckleberries, red-osier dogwood, willows, saskatoon, seviceberry, oxalis, vine-maple, old-growth lichen, some ferns, common vetch & there are many others. There are many different varities of berries that grow in these forests that utilized by black beer. In wstside Oregon & Washington Black bears & elk & deer evolved in old forests. It is the 10 to 50 year old young forests–that privide nothing more than excape & thermal cover for these animals.

  16. MW-I was born and raised in washington and Oregon. Once the forest grows to the point where the sun is cut out there is not enough food grown in the old forest to sustain deer or Elk. There obviously is organism there. Some types of forest (i.e. heavily mixed with Oak etc) still gets sunlight to the ground. There are very few old forests like that in the Northwest. Your last post sounds theoretical not practical.

  17. Sweed: This exchange could go on forever. Forest conditions are a function of slope, aspect, elevation & moisture. Each forested acre is unique with a variety of stem density, size & plants. When we use to get cold winters with deep snow, elk & deer survived on “Old Growth Lichen”. In the winter, moose eat young conifer seedlings growing underneath the larger trees. True Old-Growth forests, with large trees, contain openings where large trees fall over creating habitat for a variety of plants. Large down logs are habitat for carpenter ants that provide protein for bears.

    Again it is the 15 to 100 year old forests–in the stem exclusion stage–that are the most biological impoverished. Once these forests get beyond this age, they become more biological diverse.

    I too have spent 35 years working in the northwest forests & now that I am retired, I spend one out of ever three hiking in these forests. As I live in rural Oregon & am surrounded by public forests, studying the relationship of forests to wildlife is my hobbie. And it is not “theoritical” that I find healthy populations of deer & elk & bear in these old forests. It is true if one wants to maximize the “production” of JUST deer & elk–excluding the variety of lesser known Old-Growth species–then one should “clearcut the world”. In other words, practice Wal-Mart industrial forestry.

  18. One last try! Don’t clearcut the world. Why all or nothing? If we want an abundance of deer and Elk we need to clearcut enough to provide timber AND FOOD! Otherwise the survivors must move to town. I too have an extensive forest related background in Wn, Or, and Mt.