Black bears are predators

Researchers discovered 88 per cent of fatal attacks involved a bear exhibiting predatory behaviour, writes Brian Norwood.

by Brian Norwood

If you decide to enjoy the beautiful outdoors you are much more likely to die from a bee sting, heat stroke or be struck dead by lightening, than you are to die from a bear attack.

The experts remind us constantly that black bears are not dangerous and while this is basically true, it is not the whole story.

What we are not being told is that physical encounters with black bears have risen dramatically in the past 10 years. Although the outcome is rarely fatal and seldom do serious injuries occur, the experience is nothing short of terrifying for the victims.

Perhaps the most important fact is that the circumstances and environmental factors which lead to these encounters are much different than many of us are being told.

One of the world’s leading authorities on bear encounters/attacks is Dr. Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus with the University of Calgary. His exhaustive research of many decades has debunked many of our traditional teachings.

One of the things we hear most often is about the danger we face when getting to close to Momma bear and her cubs, yet only eight per cent of deadly attacks are attributed to a mother bear protecting her babies.

Most government brochures and public information programs focus on warning us about how not to attract bears with food. An important issue for sure, but when it comes to bear encounters only 38 per cent of fatal incidents are believed to have involved any food whatsoever.

Give eight per cent fatal attacks to protective Momma, add 38 per cent for food and you are left with a gaping hole. What about the other 54 per cent of fatal attacks and what is causing them?

This question prompted Dr. Herrero to investigate further.

In 2011 with assistance from graduate student Andrew Higgins, support from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife along with Brigham Young University, Dr. Herrero analyzed the circumstances of all recorded deaths inflicted by non-captive black bears in North America between 1900 and 2009. Even he was shocked by his findings.

Many people wishing to dispel our fear of bears point out there have only been 103 deaths in over a hundred years. True, but 86 per cent of those deaths occurred from 1960 – 2009, an alarming trend, and there is no reason to believe this trend is slowing down.

Dr. Herrero’s team of renowned researchers discovered 88 per cent of fatal attacks involved a bear exhibiting predatory behaviour, and 92 per cent of those predatory bears were males.

This suggests male bears have/are developing different behaviours than females, and each male bear also develops its own unique personality.

What this means is a single “do this” strategy to protect yourself against a bear attack is a recipe for disaster. Nothing works for all similar situations, and playing dead in some situations may cause you to become dead.

There are two basic types of bear encounters, one is defensive the other is predatory.

According to Herrero, defensive encounters tend to be preceded with lots of noise. Bears will huff loudly, snort, slap their paws on the ground, snarl/growl, some even thrash the grass or bushes.

In these situations something has upset the bear, most likely you or even more commonly your dog.

These situations are scary, are best avoided, should be reported but seldom do they indicate we have a problem or even a potential problem bear.

On the other hand, a predatory encounter is one precluded by silence—bears normally move with great stealth.

“It stalks you just like a lion might stalk you,” Herrero said.

All bears love berries, shrubs and insects. Vegetation makes up about 80 per cent of their diet.

It is the other 20 per cent of their food supply we need to remember. Bears are natural hunters and enjoy taking down fish, deer even the occasional moose.

Hunting behaviour is just another term for predatory behaviour. Displaying this predatory behaviour towards people is significant and needs to be identified, reported and acted upon.

With approximately 20,000 calls per year about bears and with almost no serious encounters occurring, the bulk of bear reports tend to slide through the system. This is not to say officials don’t take bear encounters seriously, they certainly do. They problem is wildlife management is often not getting the right information.

Example:  A hiker has the terrifying experience of a bluff charge—a situation where a bear charges right at you then abruptly stops a mere 15 metres away. This experience is guaranteed to change the colour of your hiking shorts, an incident almost always reported to wildlife officers.

On the other hand, you might hear a group of hikers talking in the bar after a day on the trails. Describing how a crazy little black bear followed them for two kilometres, “he was so cute.”

That cute bear is displaying predatory behaviour and that’s the bear you really need to report. This bear is not going to grow smaller and he is only going to get braver and more confident with time.  These are the bears which need to be reported, watched most closely and managed as necessary.

If you have a predatory experience, don’t panic. Even when a bear displays this kind of behaviour it is still very rare the bear will actually make physical contact with a human, but it is this behaviour we all need to be on the lookout for.

Our wildlife officers can only manage the situation based upon the information they receive. They need informed accurate information, and they definitely need information about any bears displaying predatory behaviour.

Brian Norwood is a retired safety specialist from the oil and gas Industry. His instructor/safety certifications include: Bear Awareness and Bear Encounter Prevention, ATV Safety, and Wilderness Survival.