October 01, 2013Twelve year old Abigail Wetherell's jog in the woods of Wexford County last month became an overnight national news sensation. Media flocked to the lively story of the black bear that attacked her and the story spread across the nation faster than vultures circle over bloated road-kill. The young woman was pursued by a black bear and attacked. She suffered punctures, cuts and lacerations. Abby recovered well and was released from the Munson Medical Center in Traverse City a few days after the unprovoked attack.
The Bare Facts
The DNR estimates our State is habitat for 8,000 to 10,000 black bears; the majority roam the Upper Peninsula. Michigan's black bear population is thriving and expanding south well into the lower half of the Lower Peninsula with bear sightings near Battle Creek and the northern fringes of Flint. Back in 1997 a black bear become an earlier media sensation when it wandered into the northern Oakland County Village of Clarkston startling homeowners and raiding birdfeeders before it was live-trapped and relocated by the DNR.
For the past few years there has been an increase in informational displays and black bear advisory signs in State, Federal and private campgrounds. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's Platte River Campground; a habitat popular with this writer and bears has strict regulations for campers to promote bear safety and metal storage bin for food storage at some walk in tent camping sites. This is good; for bear problems are people related problems and the fact of the matter is clear: In almost all encounters with humans black bears go to great effort to avoid contact and conflict unless they are enticed in by our poor behavior and food.
Food, Feed And Confusion
Surprising a bear in the brush is a dangerous situation. Jonathan Schechter photo
If a black bear in Michigan could read published literature it might become confused when it comes to the matter of non-natural food availability; food made available by humans. Here is some of what our DNR has in print.
"From the start of the legal bear baiting period (31 days before the bear hunting season begins in the bear management unit) through the end of the bear hunting season, bear hunters may use the following products without quantity restrictions:
• Meat and meat products
• Fish and fish products including cat food
• Bakery/confectionery products; including jams, jellies, sweeteners, candies and other cooked or commercially processed materials, including pie fillings and yogurts used in bakery products."
However, the excellent pamphlet Preventing Bear Problems in Michigan, published by the Michigan DNR has a different twist to the story," Whether you welcome the black bear or not, all of us that live and recreate in bear range share the responsibility of avoiding activities that attract bear and place them as well as us in jeopardy of injury. Problems occur when bear attempt to or actually feed on human foods, garbage, pet foods or birdseeds." And they emphasize in bold letters, "Never intentionally feed bear! With the exception of baiting for hunting purposes in remote areas, placing food to attract bear near homes, cottages, parks, campgrounds, and picnic areas may teach them to associate people with food. This may place them and people at risk of injury."
Black bears have enormous appetites, a great sense of smell and roam far and wide in search of food. Although they are technically classified as carnivores they are voracious omnivores eating everything from blueberries, roots, nuts and bugs, to carrion and fawns. And they are smart, very smart. Once a food source is located they keep coming back and forcible entry into cabins is in their bag of tricks. Easier food sources may be provided by sloppy campers or hunters trying to entice a bruin to bag. There is little question that once bears associate people with food whether it is provided intentionally or not the chance of conflict increases, putting both humans—and bears at risk.
Bear Awareness And Safety
After the bear attack on Abigail there was great speculation as to why it happened. Some thought it was a predatory attack. Most do not. The answer will never be known with certainty but the bear did chase her and swat her down. Running is an enticement for all great predators, be it bears, coyotes or cougars. Living, camping or hiking in Michigan's expansive and expanding bear country is without doubt going to be a growing issue of safety concern and public educations as the habitat preferences of the primate Homo sapiens and Urus americanus blend together. Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance wrote, "Your best weapon to minimize the risk of a bear attack is your brain. Use it as soon as you contemplate a trip to bear country, and continue to use it throughout your stay."
Bear Safety Tips
• Always practice situational awareness.
• Never think bear behavior is totally predicable.
• When camping never sleep in the clothes you wore when preparing food.
• Never run from a black bear. Stand your ground.
• Dogs are not always a human's best friend in bear country.
• Make a bear aware of your presence.
• Before pitching a tent look for bear signs, scattered garbage, tracks, and droppings.
• Know how to hang a bear bag for food storage and use one when camping.
• Do not entice a bear with fish at campsite or coolers left on tables.
• Pack bear spray, know how to use it and have it instantly available.
• Bear bells are controversial, some think it signal human-conditioned bears that dinner is on the way in the form of a tempting campsite with treats.
Running on trails is a special circumstance that deserves additional comment. A runner has a greater chance of surprising a bear or being surprised by a bear and a startled bear is never a happy bear. In Abigail's case it is believed her solo run drew the bear's attention and then perhaps it was curiosity blended with the instinctive behavior of pursuit that brought the chase and attack. It is likely if she did not run and instead stood her ground and yelled at the bear the bear would have turned heel.
The bear attack became a news sensation because an unprovoked bear attack is such a rare event. It drew even more attention because it was not a bear protecting cubs. But black bear attacks can and do happen. Some bear-fearful campers in the Great Smoky Mountains set up solar powered electric bear fences around their tents to ward off hungry or curious bears. Others just practice situational awareness. If a bear comes into camp or a cabin leave the bear an unobstructed escape route and try to scare it off by banging pans and hollering. If the bear stands its ground or makes bluff charges or aggressive sounds you are too close and it is time for slow steps backwards. If the bear actually attacks fight back with everything you have, from stabbing with a hiking pole to gouging at eyes with keys or a stick to punching with bare hands. Play dead during a predatory attack by a black bear and you may end up dead.
Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist/paramedic in Oakland County and a member of the Wilderness Medical Society. E-mail email@example.com