Keen on bears
Junction teen's bruin encounter sheds light on uneasy coexistence
It would have been hard to miss the news about Dylan McWilliams this past July.
The 19-year-old Grand Junction native woke up to find his head in the mouth of a black bear while sleeping outside at a summer camp in the foothills above Boulder.
It seemed every news outlet in the English-speaking world was talking about it — NPR, Fox News, National Geographic, Time and even media outlets in the United Kingdom and Australia were among dozens, if not hundreds of others.
After all, what makes a better story than a bear attack, especially one in which a teenager “awakens to ‘crunching sound’ as bear bites his head,” as CNN headlined on July 10.
But, as ever, there’s more to this tale, and most of the tales of bears and men, than an irresistible sound bite and the terror it likely evokes.
For example, why would a black bear do that to McWilliams? And with all these bears in the woods, is it safe to go out there? What can people do to protect themselves?
To start with the first question: why? McWilliams himself probably had the most succinct answer.
“A bear’s going to do what a bear’s going to do,” he said in late August, looking back on the encounter. “We were in its territory. But it picked ours, too.”
This is true. It’s the season for black bears to be about, here on the Western Slope and across their North American range, from Alaska to Maine and nearly anywhere forested in between.
In most of these areas, bears and humans coexist, with humans often adventuring into bear habitat and bears occasionally wandering into human habitat.
But when bears sometimes bother humans, it’s mostly because they’re hungry and not after flesh. Black bears aren’t maniacal man eaters. They’re omnivores, said Lauren Truitt, statewide spokeswoman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
In summer and fall, the average bear is driven by its stomach, desperately trying to eat nearly 20,000 calories per day — the average human consumes 2,000 calories per day — so that it can live off its energy stores during its months of winter hibernation, Truitt said.
They mostly fill up on all the acorns, chokecherries, serviceberries, fish and bugs they can find, she said. A bear might prey on a fawn or other small animals, as well, if the prey is too young or weak to get away quickly, but a bear typically is not one for chasing down a meal like a lion does.
If it is struggling to find food in the wild, a bear will travel farther and farther to find it, Truitt said, pointing to new research from Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s southwestern sector that shows black bears in the Durango area can travel more than 100 miles to forage.
This long journey to grab a bite sometimes impels a bear to cautiously poke its nose into human habitations. That could be a campsite like the one McWilliams slept in, mountain towns or larger cities that border the woods.
“Over the last few years, we have seen some significant food failures,” Truitt said.
These shortages are likely part of why people across the state see bears snarfing up birdseed in a backyard bird feeder or greasy, sugary leftovers in someone’s unlatched Dumpster, food that packs in a better calorie count for a hungry bear than acorns.
“They’re not going to look very hard for food if it’s right there in front of them in a McDonald’s bag,” Truitt said of trash-digging bears.
That’s why the wildlife agency is on a mission to educate people about battening down the trash bins. Truitt said there’s strong evidence from the Durango wildlife study that merely locking up trash can make a big difference.
“What that research showed is the significant reduction in bear interactions at those homes that had bear-proof trash cans,” she said, noting that the researchers saw a 50 percent reduction in human-bear interactions between a neighborhood where trash was left out as normal and a neighborhood where trash was properly bear-proofed.
Which might make one wonder, did McWilliams find his head in a bear’s mouth because he and his fellow campers had a bunch of trash lying around?
Not so, McWilliams said.
Glacier View Ranch, the summer camp where the incident occurred, implements excellent bear practices, he said. They use bear-proof trash bins, and at the beginning of each camp session, all the attendees are taught about bear safety, including not having any food outside of designated areas.
Plus, McWilliams grew up camping in Colorado and was taught good bear etiquette by his family along the way.
Yet, food still could have circuitously led to McWilliams’ trouble.
Too many people allow bears to amble through human habitations without experiencing any repercussions, Mike Porras said.
Porras is the Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman for Grand Junction’s region, covering Mesa and Garfield counties as well as the rest of northwestern Colorado.
It has been “a very busy” bear year for the area, he said, and while part of that problem is a local shortage of wild forage for the animals, another part of the problem is that people who come across bears often don’t haze them properly.
For example, a bear is munching on some birdseed or looking into a garbage bin, and onlookers go and get a camera or silently enjoy the wildlife viewing.
That’s not good human behavior, Porras said.
“The thing that people need to do in such a case is make that bear immediately feel as unwelcome as possible,” he said.
Yell, bang on noisy objects, throw bulky things such as lawn chairs in the direction of the bear or employ other loud and frightening actions from a safe distance.
“It’s the most humane thing you can do to that bear,” Porras said, as bears caught in cities more than once or that put humans in direct danger are judged unsafe and killed, usually regretfully, by wildlife officers.
Such was the case with the bear that went after McWilliams — it was trapped and killed the next day. A necropsy revealed that no illnesses caused its anomalous behavior and also found human DNA underneath its claws.
“They’re a significant threat to health and human safety if they become comfortable around humans,” Porras said of black bears.
And so the unhazed bear at a birdfeeder quickly learns that good things result from coming into town and can easily develop in to a “problem” bear. While a bear isn’t a man eater, it is a threat because it is so much stronger and more likely to win a fight if cornered.
“Bears are working on instinct. Humans, on the other hand, do have a choice,” Porras said.
It’s like a dog who begs at the table and is rewarded, Porras said. The dog will probably beg at the table every meal afterward, but it’s not her fault. The human shouldn’t have fed her.
So it may be that McWilliams’ middle-of-the-night bear encounter was influenced by the poor behavior of people before him who didn’t do enough to haze the bear that bit him.
Jennifer Churchill, the wildlife agency’s spokeswoman covering the northeast area of the state where McWilliams’ encounter occurred, said there had been sightings of an unusually aggressive black bear in the area of Glacier View Ranch in the weeks before the incident.
A bear had broken the window of a nearby home, area campers reported a bear in their camp that wouldn’t leave despite attempts to haze it and area hikers reported a bear following them as they walked, Churchill said.
It’s important to remember this shouldn’t be standard bear behavior.
“Black bears normally don’t go after people,” Churchill said.
Only three human deaths at the jaws and claws of black bears are officially recorded in Colorado’s history: one in 1979, one in 1993 and another in 2012. The latter was a woman in Ouray County who was known for hand-feeding black bears.
Wildlife numbers also show how deeply natural factors — the food supply found in the wild, for instance — influence bears, Porras said.
Wildlife officers in the Garfield-Mesa area have handled 42 bears since spring (March). In contrast, they only handled one bear between March and December of 2016.
In 2015, they handled 22 bears. In 2014, it was 141 bears. In 2013: 10 bears.
It’s important to note, however, that just because a bear has a bad year for its belly and tries to supplement its diet in the cities doesn’t mean it will forever be hooked on human food.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s latest research study showed that bears typically returned to eating natural, wild foods when they’re able, seemingly preferring nuts and berries in the comfort of the woods to a dangerous trek through city alleyways for cold french fries.
But even if the bears stay out of towns and campsites, there is always the chance around Colorado that people will meet with bears in the wild.
McWilliams said bears aren’t a good reason to not enjoy the outdoors.
In the days after his scrape with a bear, he continued to give wilderness survival instruction at Glacier View Ranch and then at another Seventh-Day Adventist camp session in Wyoming.
He still revels in time in the woods and nights sleeping under the stars. He said he’ll continue to do so, without trepidation.
“I think a lot of the time a bear attacks because you surprise it or you’ve gotten between it and its cubs or something like that,” McWilliams said.
He suggested people should try being present when they’re in the woods, “not looking at your phone while you’re hiking.”
His experience has lead him to consider becoming a wildlife officer in the future, a career in which he can continue to spend time in the outdoor places he loves with the wildlife he loves.
“Bears have always been my favorite animal, and they still are,” he said.