From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 7, Number 15 - July 5, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Be bear aware
Bear attacks rare but dry summer could bring more incidents
by Joy Ufford

In Utah, an 11-year-old boy camping with his family was dragged from his tent as he slept and was mauled to death by a black bear. The bear, which had a recent history of aggressive behavior around campsites, was hunted down the next day and killed by state wildlife officers.

In the Big Sandy area last month, a young and apparently emaciated grizzly bear approached a legal bear bait and the hunter shot it, thinking it was a black bear. Officials said it was the farthest south in the Wind River Range that a grizzly had been documented, to their knowledge.

A man was attacked in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) during an early-morning walk by a sow grizzly with three cubs feeding on an elk carcass near Jackson Lake Lodge corrals. The sow lacerated and punctured him as he lie prone on the ground, then ran off when a wrangler yelled. Park officials said they would take no action against the sow, which was protecting its food source and cubs. Nine days later, Teton Park officials shot and killed a 150-pound black bear reported to have pushed against windows at Jenny Lake Lodge and scaled a six-foot fence to get near the kitchen door. The bear, trapped and collared earlier in the month, had a history of following hikers, clawing at tents and approaching buildings with people inside.

Rare attacks

Agencies from local, state and national levels often urge campers, hikers, hunters and other recreationists to be aware of both grizzly and black bear presence and avoid conflicts by storing food and any items with a scent.

But how large is the danger of encountering a bear in a deadly attack? And why have bears, including black bears we often consider harmless, made these attacks or approached human-visited areas? Wildlife officials have shared some insights into these situations and constantly advise people using front- and backcountry sites to use caution.

“There are conflicts with bears and people in almost every state,” said Zach Turnbull, bear conflict specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) about the black bear fatality in Utah. “It is incredibly, incredibly rare for a bear to seek out a human to attack like that.”

There have been 49 recorded fatal attacks by bears on humans, with 29 of those fatalities occurring since 1990, according to U.S. Hunting Today.

Drought effects

The fatal black bear attack was the first in Utah's recorded history, according to Utah Division of Wildlife Resources director Jim Karpowitz in a June 20 release. Though he said he hoped it would be the last, he warned the public “bear problems are particularly acute during hot, dry summers when bears show up in campgrounds and cities in search of food.”

Turnbull echoed those sentiments.

“The big thing for me is that this summer is shaping up to be a dry nasty summer,” Turnbull said, adding that there are more human-bear conflicts reported when there are fewer food sources.

“They travel around and are visible a lot more,” he said of both black bears and grizzlies. You have a high (hunter) harvest of black bears in years the food sources are short, especially in those dry years.”

Bears in poor shape are more likely the ones seen around homes, livestock, garbage, vehicles and other potential food sources, Turnbull said.

“Bears that are stressed might act a little differently than bears in good condition,” he said.

That is one reason wildlife and park officials want to know about bear sightings, whether grizzly or black bear, to monitor the bear’s behavior and prevent conflicts.

Bearish behavior

Storing food and scented items when camping and game meat away when hunting are the best ways to avoid conflicts in parks and forests, officials said.

If hungry bears can get food easily from a human source, they become “habituated” to receiving “food rewards” but eventually if they are unable to get enough food their behavior can worsen, according to GTNP officials.

The young black bear put down after its incidents near Jenny and Leigh Lakes had become accustomed to receiving its food rewards from human-occupied sites and walked around on a patrol cabin porch “showing little or no unease about park staff who were inside the cabin,” according to a GTNP release.

When the GTNP black bear was confronted by park rangers he “exhibited little or no concern for nearby people and repeatedly bluff-charged park rangers,” it said.

“We never take the decision to euthanize a bear lightly,” GTNP Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott said. “It is unfortunate and frustrating that food rewards and habituation to people have caused this bear to become food-conditioned and aggressive. Bears generally pose a safety concern only after they start to associate people and their activities with easily obtained food.”

Some officials suggested there might have been food at the Utah campsite where the boy was killed recently, according to U.S. Hunting Today, which also reported that a Utah County sheriff’s deputy said “it does not appear that the very minimal amount of food in the campsite had anything to do with the (fatal) bear attack.”

Turnbull said bears might decide to attack when they are unable to easily get food from a previously productive source such as a tent or campsite where people had not stored food properly.

“A bear might next time go into a tent and attack a person,” he said. “It’s a trickle-down effect that might explain some of this year’s attacks. It could be stress-related but it could also be that most of them had already been in trouble this year.”

Bear-human conflicts might be avoided if everyone stored food properly, he suggested.

“Bears tear into cars ... and people wonder why,” he said. “There’s a good probability those bears were fed and habituated. Someone shows up and does it (storage) right and gets scratched because of the one before them.”

Bear country caution

• Be alert for signs of bears and bear activity.
• Make noise while hiking to avoid surprising bears or other wildlife.
• Never approach a bear (or any wild animal) for any reason.
• Don’t run from bears and do not drop your pack if a bear charges.
• Set up cooking, eating and supply area at least 100 yards from your sleeping area.
• Select food in sealed packages. Plan meals to prevent leftovers. Store animal food, feed and garbage the same as food. Never bury it. Pack it out.
• Dump dishwater at least 100 yards away.
• Keep sleeping bags and tents completely free of food, food odors and beverages.
• Store personal items (deodorant, toothpaste and soap) with food and garbage.
• Camp in a tent in open areas away from trails, thick brush, berry patches, spawning streams and carcasses.
• Wash your hands thoroughly after cooking, eating or handling fish or game.
• Do not sleep in the same clothes you cook in.
• Carry pepper spray as a last resort, but never replace bear spray for common sense and precautionary measures.

Tips are compiled from GTNP and U.S. Forest Service Web sites.

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