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Study: Most black bears that attack humans may see them as prey

There are nearly a million black bears in North America, but over the past century and more they've killed only 63 humans, says a new study on black bear behavior published today in the Journal of Wildlife Management. The study's lead author tells The New York Times that the increasing rate of deaths in recent decades is the result of more humans entering bear habitat. What's more remarkable, says Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary, is that the vast majority of black bear attacks are by male bears likely hunting for food, not females protecting cubs.

“Mother bears, whenever they feel threatened or a person is too close, they act very aggressively,” said Stephen Herrero, the study’s lead author. “They make noise, they swat the ground with their paws and they run at people. They want to make you think that they’ll eat you alive, but they almost always stop.”

By contrast, “the kind of bear you need to be afraid of is not feeling threatened by you — it’s testing you out as a possible prey item,” said Dr. Herrero, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary. “It’s quiet. It stalks you just like a lion might stalk you.”

Most human deaths in black bear attacks have occurred in sparsely populated places, where the bears are less accustomed to human presence. Chris Morgan, a bear biologist currently featured on the Alaska-set PBS series "Bears of the Last Frontier," says black bears, with their tree-climbing abilities, evolved to be less confrontational than browns and grizzlies, which kill twice as many people.

Herrero says that based on his research, he believes people in bear country should just back away from mother black bears with cubs but should stand their ground and appear threatening toward a male black bear that seems predatory. "Stomp at it, throw rocks at it, whatever you need to do to convince it you’re not easy prey,” he says.

Read more at The New York Times.