Two Rare Black Bear Attacks Show Rise in Conflict With People

After back-to-back black bear maulings in Alaska, officials warn that knowing how to respond to an attack could mean life or death.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is still on the hunt for a black bear that mauled and killed 16-year-old Patrick Cooper. Meanwhile, experts recommend caution to those venturing into bear habitat as summer heats up.

The fatal incident took place on June 18 during an annual trail race that has been held in the region for the past 29 years. The three-mile trail began at Bird Ridge in Alaska's Chugach State Park and involved a 3,400-foot vertical ascent through heavily wooded terrain.

"If we find the bear, we definitely want to kill it," said Ken Marsh, a representative from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"This has all the earmarks of a predatory attack: A bear attack deliberately targeting a human being," said Marsh.

Cooper was reportedly texting during the time of his attack, telling his family he was being chased by a bear. It's believed he may have been separated from his fellow runners after running through thick brush and veering from the trail. Other runners reported seeing brown bears and black bears with cubs along the trail.

The day following Cooper's attack, a second black bear mauling was reported after a contractor hired by Pogo Mine, 300 miles north of Anchorage, to collect geological samples was reportedly attacked. The incident is being investigated by mine officials and Alaska State Troopers, and few details have been released.

PREDATORY ATTACKS

"It's always a surprise when they behave this way, but it is bear country," said Marsh.

Mama bears protecting their cubs are commonly believed to pose the biggest threat to human intruders. But a study published in 2011 found that 88 percent of bear attacks were by male black bears on the prowl for food.

Black bears that are surprised by humans or protecting their cubs will make displays of aggression to ward off people they perceive to be a threat.

Predatory attacks like the one that took place in Bird Ridge pose a significantly more fatal threat. Bears testing the viability of prey will quietly stalk and possibly circle their victims.

HUMAN WILDLIFE CONFLICT

That two black bear attacks occurred in Alaska within two days of each other is rare. Only six deaths had previously been reportedly linked to black bears in Alaska in the past 130 years.

While bear populations are growing around the nation, thanks to decades of restrictions on hunting, population trends are difficult to collect in Alaska because of the region's punishing terrain and dense woods, said Marsh.

Human populations in Alaska are definitely growing. Before the 1950s, the state's population was below 200,000. As of 2016, the Census estimated the population of Anchorage, near last Sunday's trail race, to be over 400,000. (Alaska's state population sits at just over 700,000.)

Marsh cautioned that as more people come into contact with wildlife, the chances for conflict also increase. Coming within 150 feet of a bear in a U.S. national park is illegal.

Bears become more active during the summer months and their mating season typically begins in July.

Travelling through wooded areas during this time of year is best done in groups. When confronted with a brown bear, officials recommend playing dead and not provoking this species, which can be more aggressive than black bears.

If travelling alone and confronted with a black bear, Marsh says there's only one thing to do.

"Don't run. That can trigger the predator-prey reflex. Pick up a stick and or rock and fight." He also recommended travelling with bear spray or a firearm as a defence of last resort.

"In the case of a predatory black bear, it's hungry. If you play dead, you're making it easier for it."

More information on how to prevent and react to bear attacks can be found on the National Park Services' website.

Header Image: Black bear attacks are extremely rare. In the past 130 years, only six fatal attacks had previously been recorded in Alaska. PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHIO HOSHINO, MINDEN PICTURES

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