Research suggests the traditional perception of female bears fatally attacking humans to protect cubs is wrong. In reality, the vast majority of deadly encounters are with male black bears on the hunt. — Canadian Press file photo
Calgary — Mother black bears may be getting a bad rap.
Research suggests that the traditional perception of female bears fatally attacking humans to protect cubs is wrong. In reality, the vast majority of deadly encounters are with male black bears on the hunt.
“One of the surprises was that the females that can act so aggressively when they feel threatened are really not the ones that follow through with the serious stuff,” said Stephen Herrero, an expert in bear behaviour and ecology at the University of Calgary. “The male bears are the ones that follow through with the serious stuff.”
Herrero worked with graduate student Andrew Higgins, Brigham Young University in Utah and colleagues from the Massachusetts division of Fisheries and Wildlife to analyze recorded deaths caused by non-captive black bears in North America between 1900 and 2009.
Fatal maulings are actually quite rare. Only 63 people were killed in Canada and the United States during that time. In Canada, there have been a handful of fatal attacks in the last five years.
The research, which is published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, concluded that the majority of fatal encounters involved bears exhibiting predatory behaviour and 92 per cent of those bears were males.
Herrero said there are two distinct kinds of behaviour that bears exhibit and there’s a reason that females with cubs tend to get the blame.
“It’s because of the way they act. They blow. They snort. They swat the ground. They run at you. They make it look like they’re going to eat you alive and that’s exactly what they want (you to think),” he said.
“They want to get their way without really mixing it up and where they might get injured.”
But the male’s approach is different.
“The predatory male bear is like any predatory animal. It’s silent. It’s stalking and then makes a rush at a person,” Herrero explained.
“One of the surprises was that the females that can act so aggressively when they feel threatened are really not the ones that follow through with the serious stuff." Stephen Herrero
“Male bears simply take more risks in order to get the resources that they need to be able to breed with females. They’re more willing to prey on potentially dangerous animals like elk or moose.
“The males simply are pushed a little bit more than the females by their evolutionary mandate to be big and strong.”
There are about 900,000 black bears in North America.
The study found that 86 per cent of fatal attacks have occurred since 1960 and that they’re more common in Canada and Alaska despite lower human populations there. The research confirms some current perceptions and bear management practices. It found that bears that have previously killed people are more likely to attack again. Groups of more than two people are much less likely to be attacked. Human food and garbage tends to attract bears and may increase the likelihood of serious attacks.
Herrero said the black bear may not be as physically intimidating as the much-larger grizzly but is usually strong enough to overpower most people.
He advises that the last thing anyone should do if being stalked by a bear is to run for it.
“If you see that bear constantly following you, that’s the time for you and your friends to stop and act aggressively to the bear. You shout. You throw things at it. You take runs at it.”
Herrero is the author of “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” which has sold over 125,000 copies worldwide.
His past research on bear attacks has helped develop new policies on bear safety and shifted focus to bear conservation.