A new study backs up recent grizzly-bear finding that dangerous encounters with predators can be minimized if people are taught how to be smarter.
On Wednesday, University of Calgary bear-attack expert Stephen Herrero published a study detailing almost 70 years of large carnivore attacks and showed that at least half were brought on by human themselves. His aim is to quell the fear of carnivores that some people develop if they don’t understand animal behavior or how to avoid dangerous situations.
While predator populations are returning to some parts of the U.S., some of the recent reports of animal attacks have more to do with an increasing number of uninformed people recreating in more wild areas such as national parks and forests.
In Yellowstone National Park alone, visitation numbers have set records in most of the past 10 years. In 2015, more than 4 million people visited Yellowstone, an increase of more than 16 percent over 2014. Many of those visitors have no knowledge of wild animals, and information pamphlets are often tucked into windshield visors unread.
That often leads to another few visitors joining the ranks of those who have been attacked by bears, lions or wolves. However, Herrero points out that thousands of interactions occur between people and large carnivores with no injuries or fatalities. So what potentially results in a different outcome?
Herrero’s study used data from 700 large carnivore attacks on humans that have occurred in North America and Western Europe since the 1950s. While he found that the number of attacks have increased in recent decades, attacks dipped in the most recent decade of 2005-2014 compared to the peak of almost 160 attacks between 1995 and 2004.
That appears to be partly because the number of coyote attacks wasn’t as great in 2005-2014. Coyotes, which are ubiquitous throughout the western U.S., account for about one-third of all reported attacks.
Wolves were the only species that saw attacks decrease over more than one decade. The 10 attacks reported in 1975-1984 dropped to only two to three from 1985 on.
Alternatively, the number of polar bear attacks rose to seven over the past decade. He points out that during that time, Arctic tourism and oil and gas exploration have increased while the extent and duration of sea ice, the polar bear’s seasonal habitat, has decreased. It’s likely that climate change will cause polar bear conflicts to increase as the species struggles to survive.
More carnivore attacks occur in the summer months, mainly because that’s when more people pursue outdoor activities, although that’s also when bears are most active.
When assessing the contribution of human behavior to carnivore attacks, he included only the 271 reports that were well documented.
Almost half of those incidents were brought on by one of five human actions: approaching a female with young; wandering in the dark or low light; hunters dealing with a wounded animal; walking with a dog off leash; and leaving children unattended. Almost two-thirds of the accidents caused by people were due to parents leaving children unattended. Almost one-third occurred to hikers or skiers who allowed their dogs to run.
“The cases of children injured or killed while left unattended by their parents, attacks on people jogging or walking alone at twilight and during hunting, should make us reflect on our responsibilities,” Herrero said in a release. “Educational and interpretive efforts aimed at decreasing the risk of large carnivore attacks should not focus exclusively on people living in rural areas, but on the general public. Indeed, many people living in cities should be properly informed because of the increasing number of them enjoying outdoor activities and the expanding population of carnivores in suburban areas.”
This study follows on the heels of a Jan. 6 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on a grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone National Park, which also identified human mistakes as a big factor in a number of interactions. In August a female bear with two cubs killed seasonal park worker Lance Crosby and was subsequently destroyed. In a majority of attacks, the animal is trapped and killed.
The report found that Crosby failed to follow several recommendations for staying safe in grizzly country, the main one being always carry bear spray. A recent survey of almost 8,000 day-hikers in Yellowstone Park found only 14 percent carried bear spray.
The report recommended improving education programs throughout grizzly country “with the goal of achieving greater adherence to these safety practices by all recreationalists, and among day-hikers, in particular, who have a low level compliance with bear safety procedures.”