Originally created 09/05/01

Predator attacks on humans increase

It has been a year of jaws and claws: Sharks biting surfers, alligators dragging away toddlers, bears mauling campers and cougars attacking skiers and bicyclists.

Actually, 2001 is not much different from last year despite several high-profile incidents, but the trend over the past decade is strikingly clear - close encounters of the predator kind are on a definite upswing and so are injuries and deaths.

The 1990s was the worst decade ever for shark, bear, alligator and cougar attacks in North America. Deaths and injuries to people from all four of these large predators are still rare - but not as rare as they once were.

While there are several factors behind the phenomenon, wildlife experts say the overriding reason for the increase is that there are simply a lot more people than there used to be and they are encroaching on wildlife habitat everywhere.

From urban sprawl along Colorado's Front Range to luxury retreats near Yellowstone National Park to surfing along Florida's shores, people are increasingly living, working and playing in close proximity to predators.

Another factor is that some predators are increasing their numbers once again, recovering from earlier decades in which they were widely persecuted.

"Considering the large populations of humans and predators co-existing in the same areas, it is not surprising that large predators injure some people," said Michael Conover, director of the Jack Berryman Institute at Utah State University, which researches people-wildlife conflicts.

"What is really amazing is that so few people are attacked," Conover writes in a forthcoming wildlife biology textbook. "Why don't hungry cougars and bears commonly prey upon humans, especially children? People are much easier to catch and kill than deer or elk and are more abundant."

Sharks have been the focus of the greatest attention this year. Over Labor Day weekend, a shark killed a 10-year-old boy off the Virginia coast, the first fatal attack in the state's history, and a man was killed and a woman injured in a shark attack off North Carolina's Outer Banks. Earlier this summer, there were highly publicized attacks in Florida and the Bahamas.

There were 536 shark attacks worldwide in the 1990s, continuing an upward trend exhibited throughout the 20th century, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. This year, there have been 51 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide, including three fatalities. Last year, there were 79 attacks and 10 deaths.

"There are simply more humans in the water," said George Burgess, director of the shark attack file. "We can count on this trend to continue in this century unless shark populations decline even greater than they already have or people stop going in the water or we solve the world population problem."

Florida is the shark bite capital of the world with 220 unprovoked attacks between 1990 and 2000, but only two fatalities. It's also the home of more alligators, and the site of more alligator attacks, than anywhere else.

Alligators attacked 78 people in the United States during the 1980s and 110 people between 1990 and 1995. By comparison, there are only five recorded alligator attacks between 1830 and 1969.

Hunting and commercial harvesting once threatened to wipe out alligators, but the ancient reptiles began to recover after interstate shipment of illegal alligator hides was banned. Gators have now moved from remote swamps into suburban and urban lakes and canals where they come into contact with people daily.

"You literally have people's back doors facing alligator habitat," said Harry Dutton, alligator management leader for the Florida Fish and Conservation Commission. "You have to expect that occasionally alligators are going to wander into people's yards."

There have been two alligator-related deaths this year in Florida - a 2-year-old girl who wandered away from her backyard in Winter Haven, and a 70-year-old man whose body was found floating in a Venice pond with an 8-foot gator circling nearby.

Cougars - also known as mountain lions, pumas, catamounts and panthers - once roamed most of North America, but are now reduced to 13 Western states, Florida and southwestern Canada. The Florida panther, a subspecies of cougar, is one of the most endangered animals in the world.

Half of the 20th century's 14 known deaths from cougar attacks in North America occurred in the 1990s. Colorado's only two fatal cougar attacks both occurred in the 1990s. Of the 10 known nonfatal cougar attacks in Washington state, eight have occurred since 1990.

Last year, three cougar attacks were reported, including one against a 4-year-old girl who was seriously injured near her parent's campsite at Bartlett Lake in Arizona.

In January, a cougar near Banff in Alberta, Canada, killed a 30-year-old skier - the first cougar killing in the province. A month later, a 52-year-old bicyclist was attacked on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and might have been killed had a passing tugboat crewman not stopped his truck and pried the cougar off the bicyclist's neck.

"It's an important thing to keep in mind that this is a very small risk," said cougar expert Paul Beier, a wildlife ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. "You are much safer taking a walk in the woods than walking down the street in any neighborhood in any city in the United States."

There were 128 deaths from grizzly and black bears in North America during the 20th century, with 56 deaths - nearly half - occurring in the last two decades, according to Stephen Herrero, an environmental science professor at the University of Calgary. By comparison, there were six fatal bear attacks in all of the 1940s and only one in the 1930s, said Herrero, an expert on bear attacks.

"There is a definite upward trend in bear-inflicted injuries," Herrero said. "It really began taking off in the 1980s."

Grizzly bears are fewer in number than black bears, but more dangerous. Grizzlies killed 18 people during the last decade compared to 11 people killed by black bears. Bears generally are not considered predatory and usually attack people only when they are surprised or feel threatened. However, there are some verified cases where male black bears have stalked and killed people, Herrero said.

This year there have been two fatal bear attacks - a 93-year-old woman killed by a black bear at her home in northern New Mexico and an 18-year-old camper killed near Yellowknife in Canada.

A drought in the lower Rocky Mountains has also led black bears to range wider in search of food, bringing them into close contact with people. In Colorado, bears have been seen this year at fast-food restaurants and strolling down suburban Denver streets. Tennis star Chris Evert and former Olympic ski racer Andy Mill returned to their home in Aspen one day to find a black bear foraging in the kitchen. Sixteen bear sightings were reported in one night this month in Trinidad.

Last year, a woman hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was killed by a black bear, the first fatal attack in the southeastern United States.

Florida has never had a bear attack, but nuisance black bear calls to the state Fish and Conservation commission skyrocketed from less than 100 a year in the early 1990s to 1,136 calls last year.

"People tell us, 'I don't know why these bears are tearing down the screens on my porch every day,' and they've got six bowls of pet food sitting out there," said Tom Eason, Florida state bear management leader. "It's pretty obvious to us why it's happening."


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