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.
Most people in Minnesota generally think, "So there's a bear, let's chase it away," Rogers said. "And for some people, seeing a bear in their yard is the joy of their day."
Dolling said nuisance bears, which the DWR classifies into three categories, typically become so when they are repeatedly rewarded, usually in the form of easily obtained food.
Level one bears are merely opportunistic. They'll stroll through a campground at night and steal a package of hotdogs that's been left out.
Level two bears are more creative and more of a problem. They're the ones who dig into coolers or try to gain entry into a vehicle, sometimes in broad daylight. The DWR will typically haze (chase) these animals deeper into the wilderness using rubber bullets, cracker shells or hound dogs. Sometimes these bears are trapped and moved to more remote locations.
Level three bears are repeat offenders that the DWR has no choice except to euthanize. Dolling said the DWR usually kills between five and eight bears a season, although this year they've been called upon to euthanize only two bears, meaning the combined number of bears killed by the DWR or the public remained fairly constant with historical norms.
"Black bears are ruled by fear and food. They're basically timid," Rogers said.
Dolling agrees. "Bears have an innate fear of humans," he said, "and most bears will run out of an area when humans are close by."
Although bears are omnivores, they prefer their natural diet of grasses and berries. Problems arise should they discover easy foraging around humans.
"Once that behavior is learned, it's difficult to change," Dolling said, explaining that bears killed in Utah this year tended to exhibit aggressive tendencies after building a level of tolerance toward humans.
Rogers still questions the justification.
"It's often because of their blustery behavior that bears get shot and killed. It's because of their own apprehension to a situation," Rogers said. When a bear pounces forward and slams its feet down and blows, it might seem threatening, but there's rarely any follow-through. Likewise, when a bear looks at you and clacks its teeth, it's an expression of fear — not hostility.
Rogers laments that people mistake these defensive actions for threatening ones, and the bear pays the ultimate price. It's not at all like a dog snarling, he said, because dogs are prone to attack.
But Dolling says he sympathizes with people who have seen a bear bluffing a charge or clacking its teeth, and understands how such actions could easily be mistaken for aggressive behaviors.
Nevertheless, rogue bears, like the ones who attacked Downard and killed Ives, are out there. But what makes bears go bad?
Dolling said attempting an explanation amounts to speculation mostly.
Rogers says attaching reasons for bear attacks is difficult because they're so infrequent. A lot of popular explanations — ranging from drought and hunger to women's menstrual cycles — simply don't hold up to closer scrutiny, he said. Causes for increasing encounters between man and bear are easier to peg. Baby boomer demographics and advancing technologies are shrinking bear territory in the U.S. and North America, even as the bear population is growing.
"People are moving into bear country like never before," said Rogers.
There are an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 black bears in the U.S. and upward of 900,000 spread across North America. Studies have shown North America's black bear population is increasing at a rate of between 1 and 3 percent annually.
Although a precise count isn't available, Dolling said, Utah's black bear population is somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 animals. There are no brown bears (grizzlies) in Utah.
The state's bear population is managed by the DWR, in part, through limited hunting. In 2008, 314 bear permits were issued and 134 animals were taken, Dolling said.6 comments on this story
Dolling finds increased confrontations in Utah tied to people purchasing recreational equipment that allows them to push deeper into the wilderness.
Rogers has a suggestion for anyone having a chance encounter with a black bear.
For the bear's sake, "do nothing," said Rogers. "Honestly, it really doesn't make much difference what you do, seeing as bear attacks are so rare."