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When black bears attack


Last Friday, a 69-year-old man was killed by a black bear in Selkirk Manitoba when he went to pick fruit from his plum tree. Selkirk is a town of about 10,000 people and prior to this attack, nobody had ever been attacked by a bear in this little town. In fact, only 3 people have ever been killed by black bears in the whole province of Manitoba.

I have been getting a lot of questions since Friday regarding the likelihood of a bear attack in Squamish. Well, for one, I am hardly qualified to answer that question and two, how can anybody predict such an event, "expert" or not? What I can do, however, is give you some statistics and some straight facts on black bear behavior in regards to attacks on humans.

Between the years 1978 and 1996, 10 people were killed by black bears and 78 people injured in B.C. (Conservation Officer Service Bear Statistics). Ninety per cent of all Black Bear attacks on humans are of a predacious nature (Stephen Herrero, Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance, 2003), which means the reason for the attack was driven by hunger and/or opportunity and the person was viewed as a source of food. Although this is a rare occurrence, some bear specialists like James Gary Sheldon firmly believe that the predacious black bear is becoming more common. In comparison, most grizzly bear attacks are of a defensive nature. Having said that, most black bears that are predacious towards humans are wild bears or only slightly habituated to people. Most black bear attacks are during daylight hours.

Due to different evolutionary development, black bears do not have the same built in aggressive protection instinct that Grizzly Bears do. Contrary to popular belief, sudden encounters with black bears, even mothers with cubs, almost never lead to injury. According to Stephen Herrero, however, places "where black bears have become habituated to people and accustomed to feeding on human food or garbage, there is evidence of increased danger from females with cubs".

So how likely is it to get attacked and killed by a black bear? Bear Biologist Lynn Rogers sums it up quite nicely: "For each death from a black bear across North America, there are approximately 17 deaths by spiders, 25 deaths from snakes, 67 deaths from dogs, 180 deaths from bees and wasps, 374 deaths from lightening and 90,000 homicides."

Was the attack on the gentleman from Selkirk predacious? That has yet to be publicized but my guess would be yes as the bear was found protecting the corpse. Squamish has never had an instance of a black bear attack on a human, although there have been several predacious attacks on livestock in the area.

By far the best way to prevent human/bear conflicts is through avoidance. We, as a community can continue keeping this particular statistic at zero by not inviting them into our community and eliminating bear access to garbage, fruit trees and other attractants.

For more information regarding bear attacks I recommend, Bear Attacks, Their causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero as well as any one of the books written by James Gary Sheldon.

Kris Hopping is the Bear Aware coordinator in Squamish.

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