Are Predator Attacks Increasing in the United States?

Is the increase in predator attacks a matter of perception caused by 24-hours news and social media, or is it real?

Are Predator Attacks Increasing in the United States?

Three Montana hunters were attacked by grizzly bears in two separate incidents in September. A Minnesota woman was killed by a black bear while vacationing in Canada the same month and a Massachusetts woman was bitten by a coyote in September. Those are just a handful of examples of attacks by our largest predators in recent months.

Is this a trend? It seems as though coyotes are biting people and pets more than ever and bears are mauling unsuspecting hunters and hikers more frequently. But are they, or are we simply more aware of individual events thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media? Every incident gets circulated on the news and those stories are shared, forwarded and shared again. 

As it turns out, it’s not your imagination. Attacks by coyotes, lions and bears are indeed on the rise. Although records on a national level are sketchy (there is no database of every coyote nip, growl or mauling that takes place in every state), a number of state and local sources offer a pretty good peek at what’s going on, so does recent research that examines animal attacks. 

One study looked at coyote attacks in the United States and Canada and found a clear upward trend. Robert Timm, formerly with the University of California, and Rex Baker of Cal State Polytechnic University—Pomona, examined coyote attacks on humans from 1977 to 2015. During the study period, there were 165 attacks in California and an additional 202 in the rest of the US and Canada. Although California’s numbers have bounced up and down, the total number of coyote attacks went from an average of about four per year during the 1980s to about 15 per year in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The authors, however, caution that many more attacks have likely taken place. 

“…numerous animal regulation organizations and city authorities declined to cooperate in gathering these data, to avoid adverse publicity toward their management of wildlife or the specific cities. Park rangers also reported a reluctance of some citizens to file reports after being attacked by coyotes (Baker and Timm 1998). We also found that some agencies or entities that received such reports would not share this information with researchers or others, and some reports were said to have been discarded after a few years or were not maintained in a manner that was easily accessible,” they wrote. 

Even with incomplete data, the researchers had no doubts about reaching a consensus. Attacks on people and pets have gone up. 

So what’s going on? The increase is likely attributable to two factors: The numbers of both humans and predators have increased. It’s inevitable that encounters between humans and predators would rise over time. 

Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, increased from 136 in 1975 to more than 700 now. Lion numbers have been stable in California, but they have more than doubled in Oregon in the past 25 years. Coyotes are now found in every county in the Lower 48 and in virtually every major city in the United States. They even live New York City’s Central Park, and are seen frequently in downtown Chicago. 

That’s because they have an abundance of food. Researchers have analyzed urban and suburban coyote diets in a number of cities. Generally, they eat such things as discarded food scraps, pet food left outside, road-kill and, on occasion, free-roaming housecats. They also eat lots of rodents. 

The recent increase in mountain lion attacks is likely also directly related to the same two factors: Humans encroaching on lion habitat and more lions in the woods. Although California’s big cat population has remained relatively stable, the number of humans living on the fringes of cities has spiked. According to Headwaters Economics, since 1990, 60 percent of all new homes in the western United States were built in what is known as the wildland-urban interface.

Attacks by brown bears, which include grizzlies, have gone up worldwide, according to a report in the journal Nature. The authors examined attacks from 2000 and 2015 in North America, Europe and the Asian range of brown bears. Worldwide, there were 18 attacks in 2000. There were 83 in 2014, including 18 in North America.  

Is Hunting The Answer? 

Since most coyote attacks take place in urban and suburban settings, it is unlikely recreational hunting can have any impact on population reductions. Discharging firearms is illegal in most cities and suburbs. Even trapping isn’t feasible in those situations thanks largely to public disdain for the practice. 

However, Baker and Timm suggest that’s one reason for the increases in coyote attacks. The loss of fear of humans and reductions in predator management programs have emboldened the predators. What’s more, suburban residents have grown indifferent to the presence of coyotes, shrugging off their presence. In turn, coyotes have become more tolerant of humans and have little fear of them. That leads to higher odds of violent encounters, add the two scientists. In fact, virtually every coyote attack they examined took place where hunting is not allowed, including state, local and national parks, along with urban and suburban settings. 

In many cases, those animals end up getting killed anyway, typically at the hands of a professional wildlife manager, park ranger or someone else in a position of authority. California awards more than 100 “damage” permits for mountain lions, which are used by local governments or private landowners to kill cats that prey on livestock or that threaten people. In most cases, problem coyotes that are live-trapped are euthanized. 

What about bears where hunting could be an option? The study that looked at brown bear attacks found no correlation between legal, recreational hunting and a ban on bear hunting. 

“There was no significant difference in the number of attacks between continents or between countries with different hunting practices,” wrote the study authors. 

But hunting can play a role in reducing attacks in at least one way — by reducing the overall number of bears. The same study also noted that attacks “were more frequent at high bear and low human population densities.” That makes perfect sense. When humans wander into places where lots of bears live, attacks are more likely to happen. Keeping populations stable through regulated hunting could keep the number of run-ins down.

Part of the increase in bear attacks has as much to do with bear populations as the number of people spending time in bear country. Outdoor recreation is big these days. More than 4.1 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2018, up from 2.8 million in 2000. Wilderness travel in general has also increased. Even with so many people in the heart of YNP’s grizzly country, attacks on backcountry hikers average about one per year.  

Scientists think grizzly bear numbers in the Lower 48 will eventually stabilize, at least in their core habitat. That means attacks probably won’t increase much, if at all. However, coyotes continue filling voids, particularly in the eastern United States. The odds of a run-in will increase, which means we will likely see even more stories of attacks in our news feeds and on social media. 

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