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The bear truth: Utah's black bears pose little danger to humans

Published: Thursday, Oct. 15 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rafters travel down the Green River in Desolation Canyon. Desolation Canyon was the site of a black bear attack on a 78-year-old man in late August.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

As autumn nudges aside the final remnants of summer, Utah's black bears are in the middle of one continuous food crawl. They'll devour berries, acorns and nuts, fruit (if available), even the occasional small animal, bulking up before hitting the den for winter.

Unlike summer's peak recreation months, colder, less predictable weather allows them to pursue this single-minded quest for fuel largely unencumbered by humans, greatly limiting potential for deadly conflict.

It also means that Justin Dolling, almost a year into his job as the game mammal coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife, can finally get off those pins and needles he's been living on.

Dolling still isn't sure what to make of the deadly 2009 season that saw seven black bears shot and killed — five within

a 12-day span in July and August — during encounters with Utah campers and landowners. A tragic aberration? Or the start of a new grisly trend? Either way, it will go down as a year for the books.

Dolling wonders what prompted bears to aggressively and uncharacteristically come into contact with people despite good moisture and foliage conditions. And why, during these encounters, did people feel the need to take matters into their own hands?

"We didn't have any of those issues in 2008, but in 2009 people just started shooting bears," Dolling said, noting reported bear sightings were on par with earlier seasons. "It's perplexing."

Only one of the seven bears killed involved an attack on a person. The incident took place in late August when 78-year-old Lou Downard survived a mauling in the Green River's remote Desolation Canyon area in Carbon County.

Of the six other bears killed at the hands of the public, a rancher shot one while protecting livestock from attack. The other five were shot and killed by individuals who felt sufficiently threatened after efforts to frighten the bears away failed.

Lynn Rogers, founder of the nonprofit North American Bear Center in Minnesota, can't speak to the individual Utah cases, but thinks seven bears dying at the hands of humans in one season is too many.

Rogers, who's spent more than 40 years studying and researching the species, is an unabashed bear advocate. His ideal encounter between Homo sapiens and Ursus americanus would end with both running pell-mell in opposite directions.

But that doesn't happen often enough, he said, because bears are so demonized in the media.

"Killer bears make for great headlines," Rogers said. Harrowing escapes, like Downard's, or retelling how a black bear snatched and killed 11-year-old Samuel Evan Ives from his family's tent in American Fork Canyon in June 2007, powerfully reinforce this negative stereotype.

Rogers cites photos published in magazines and newspapers of open-mouthed bears with their teeth bared. Likewise, people watch bears that have been trained to act ferocious on TV or in the movies. Pure Hollywood, explains Rogers.

"Bears don't snarl and show their teeth when threatened," he said.

Do the math, he urges. Sixty-two people nationwide, including the Ives boy — Utah's only known bear attack fatality — have been killed by black bears in 109 years of record-keeping. Bee stings or lightning kill more people each year.

Rogers suggests an attitude adjustment might be in order.

"Whether (encountering a bear) becomes a problem or not is a matter of people's attitudes," said Rogers, explaining that man-vs.-bear encounters in rural northern Minnesota are so common that people don't think much about them.

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