Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Great Bear Conundrum

In The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans, author, photographer, and biologist Matthias Breiter says that the more he learns about bears, the less sure of them he is. He says, "If someone asks me why a bear did something, I'll say I don't know. Years ago I would have known." I admit there are times when I feel the same way.

As you delve deeper into the bear world, the first and principle thing you learn is what a conundrum they are, like a jigsaw puzzle that never quite comes together, and these apparent contradictions in behavior become more unavoidable the further you go. Some people get frustrated with this, throw up their hands and walk away, while others struggle to make these contradictory pieces all fit together within the larger picture. That's not always easy to do.

Of all the bear species, the grizzly may actually be the easiest to pin down. The bears along the coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia are generally the most docile and the most tolerant of people - as are those in areas with little to no hunting - whereas the grizzlies of interior Alaska, where food supplies are scarce, and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, where there has been a long and dark history of confrontation between man and bear, are more aggressive and often more predatory. Of course none of this accounts for individual personality, temperament, and experience which can all dictate how a bear behaves in a particular situation.

The black bear, however, is not as clearly defined, considering how dramatically their temperaments change according to geographic location. Through the work of Lynn Rogers, Terry DeBruyn, Benjamin Kilham and others, we've clearly seen how typically docile the black bear is across the eastern half of the lower 48 states. In these areas, there have been very few black bear attacks, yet the animal is unfairly demonized. There are many examples of black bears and humans peacefully co-existing, with the bears apparent aggressiveness only manifesting as "bluff" behavior. The bears usually do whatever they can to avoid confrontations and prefer to end things peacefully. In other words, they seem to react to an encounter with us the same way we would react to an encounter with them: with the desire to get out of the situation alive and unscathed!

As we move farther west, though, the black bears aggressiveness increases slightly. While it can't be said for sure, it's possible that this is a result of the drier and more desolate conditions of the west and how that impacts potential food sources. There have been a slightly larger number of black bear attacks in the west and northwest than anywhere along the eastern seaboard. Progressing further north into Oregon and Washington, black bears are a more formidable presence than they are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Moving even further north into British Columbia, the coastal black bears and those inhabiting the offshore islands are as docile as those in the eastern United States, obviously because of the rich abundance of food sources. Moving into northern interior B.C., though, the black bear suddenly becomes a very different animal, one that is sometimes compared to the tigers of Asia. Here the bear is much more predatory and has been responsible for a number of deaths and injuries. As an example, from 1978 to 1994, there were 27 attacks and 2 fatalities attributed to grizzlies, whereas there were 78 attacks and 9 fatalities attributed to black bears in the same time period. In the worst of these attacks, killing sprees were evident, with the bears killing multiple victims and caching the bodies. These bears have also been known to attack in defense of kill sites and cubs, something that has not been observed in the more docile eastern U.S. black bears. It's theorized that this increased aggression and predatory drive is a direct result of isolation and lack of contact with people, but some researchers point out that many black bears in Alaska live in those same conditions and are fifty times less aggressive than the inland B.C. bear. It's now speculated that there could be something genetic behind this level of viciousness. Even though grizzlies typically despise black bears, I have to wonder if perhaps some crossbreeding between the two species may have resulted in a more aggressive genetic strain, though there is no evidence to support the idea.

What makes this an even bigger conundrum is the fact that there is no one easy answer to explain this, something that I've found to be true in a number of bear-related incidents that I've heard of. Any of the above mentioned possibilities could be explanations or maybe these black bears are more aggressive as a result of their having to co-exist with grizzlies, who often prey on the smaller bears or kill them just for fun. Maybe this is what keeps them on edge and willing to attack, but these conditions also exist in Alaska and the black bears there seem more reclusive because of it. Either way, it's important information to be aware of, as many of those who have fallen victim to these abnormal black bears are visitors from the U.S. who live with their more docile cousin and who expect the same characteristics to be prominent throughout the species.

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