News Roundup: Bear attack, contextualized

Plus the LandFeed: California realizes solar milestone; crowded public lands; raising rents

Over the weekend the Land Desk brought you breaking news about a tragic fatal bear attack on a woman near Durango. Details remain sketchy: the victim’s name has yet to be released and the autopsy has not been performed, so the exact cause of death is not confirmed. However, a necropsy on the bears over the weekend found human remains in the stomachs of two of the bears. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the boyfriend, family and friends of the woman we lost in this tragic event,” said Cory Chick, CPW Southwest Region manager, in a press release. “We cannot determine with exact certainty how or why this attack took place, but it is important for the public not to cast blame on this woman for the unfortunate and tragic event.” 

Now for a little more context:

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On Saturday morning, as I returned from a run in the Falls Creek area north of Durango, a friend told me he was glad to see me alive. There had been a fatality the night before near the old Church Camp, which is within the same trail system I had just been on. The wounds, according to first responders on the scene, were consistent with a mountain lion attack. 

I imagine I blanched at that moment. I run in mountain lion country quite often, mostly by myself, and every single time the possibility of a cougar encounter lingers in the back of my mind. Was the lion still out there? My friend didn’t know. 

So I went to the local newspaper’s website for info. Nothing. I contacted the sheriff’s department and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Finally, a couple of hours later, CPW got back to me with their press release. There had been a fatality in the area and it likely had been the result of a wildlife attack.

But it wasn’t a mountain lion that killed the 39-year-old woman. It was a black bear. 

A bear?! I thought. A black bear? But black bears—those cute and cuddly creatures who eat berries and plants and an occasional bag of garbage—don’t do that. Do they? 

Well, yes, they do. 

It’s a very rare occurrence for any sort of wildlife to attack a human being, particularly without being provoked. And fatal attacks are even rarer. Yet as we humans encroach ever more deeply into the animals’ territory, and as wild food sources dwindle due to drought, say, or wildfire, it would only be natural for the animals to lash out from time to time. 

Most of us in the Interior West live in country where the grizzly bear and the wolf were long ago extirpated. That leaves the mountain lion at the top of my list for wildlife to be wary of, slightly ahead of the rattlesnake. I don’t think I’m alone in this. 

Sure, black bears are all over the place every summer, wandering backyards and alleys in search of apple trees and unsecured garbage cans. But it seems we’ve been culturally conditioned to be less cautious around black bears than, say, mountain lions. Surely this has to do with how cute, for lack of a better term, the bears appear to be, combined with their ubiquity. For an idea of how the hive mind perceives the two critters, just look at social media videos of black bears—lounging in hot tubs, sitting in someone’s kitchen, gorging on multiple bags of marshmallows—versus those of mountain lions, which all focus on how menacing the critters are as they haul away a fawn or pace back and forth before a plate-glass window. 

Yet, as the Durango incident shows, we should be just as heedful of black bears as of wild felines. Since 1970 there have been three—four, if the Durango attack is verified—fatal black bear attacks in Colorado. There have only been two fatal mountain lion attacks in the state during that same time. (To put this in perspective, 12 people died in Colorado in avalanches this winter, alone, and 6,449 have perished due to COVID-19. 

In 2019, Janel Marie Scharhag, then-Master’s student at the University of Wisconsin, published the results of her investigation into non-fatal attacks by black bears in her paper, “Black Bear Attack Associations and Agency Management.” She found that between 2000 and 2017, there were 210 non-fatal black bear attacks on humans in the U.S. California led the count with 63 attacks, followed by Colorado (42), New Mexico (17), Minnesota (9), and Montana (8). 

Scharhag then analyzed each attack to better understand what factors may have contributed to the aggression. Among the findings: 

  • “Most attacks were a defensive reaction by female bears who were often with young and which often involved an attractant or prior food reward or damage.”

  • “… a severe attack was predicated by the presence of a dog, if the victim was female, and if they fought back during the attack.”

  • “… attacks are more likely to occur in areas with higher wildland urban interface …” 

While the details of the Durango-area attack remain sketchy, based on what information has been released it fit the bill: The female bear had two yearlings with it (all three bruins were killed by wildlife officials following the attack); the female victim apparently had two dogs with her; and the attack occurred on or near a semi-popular trail in a strip of forested land sandwiched between the heavily developed West Animas Valley and the 100-home Falls Creek Ranch subdivision. 

Scharhag goes on to make the following recommendations to prevent attacks. Wildlife managers should:

In other words, this is on us, the humans, the intruders. Everyone in the Western U.S. lives in bear and mountain lion and coyote country, whether they are in a city or the rural outback. We need to respect that and act accordingly. Meanwhile, keep an eye and ear out for those bears (not to mention the moose, rutting deer, coyotes, and, of course, mountain lions), and if you spot one, keep your distance. 

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