A woman was attacked by a black bear while walking with her dogs in Strafford on Saturday.
Bear attacks are extremely rare in Vermont, according to officials from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. Only three prior incidents have been documented in recent history.
According to the department, Susan Lee, 61, was walking trails on her property with her two dogs, a Jack Russell terrier named Lucy and a labradoodle named Bruce, when she realized a bear was charging her.
She had just called the dogs back to her after they briefly disappeared from sight. The bear, coming from the opposite direction, ran toward her, and she tripped backward over a stone wall.
The bear bit her upper leg, creating four puncture wounds from its two upper and two lower canine teeth, according to Jeffrey Whipple, a game warden sergeant who responded to the incident. The bear then scratched Lee down her side.
“When she went down over the stone wall, the bear landed on her and essentially used her as traction, which sounds crazy, but it springboarded off of her, and bears do not have retractable claws,” Whipple said. “The wound kind of tells that story.”
Lucy, Lee’s Jack Russell terrier, came to the rescue. The dog barked until the bear chased it, drawing the bear away from Lee.
“In her words, it looks like it was going after the dog, but it wasn't able to catch it, and then the bear immediately returned to the location that it came from,” Whipple said.
Bruce, the labradoodle, was waiting on her porch when Lee arrived home.
A neighbor drove Lee to Gifford Medical Center, where she received care for her wounds and preventative rabies treatment.
Based on the bear’s behavior, Whipple said it was likely a mother with cubs nearby, and was surprised by Lee and her dogs. Because of the steep topography, Lee and the bear got close to each other before the bear realized Lee and her dogs were there.
Bears acting defensively will often “bluff charge,” approaching quickly, then staying 10 to 15 feet away, Whipple said. Their goal is to scare the threat away without having to fight.
“They'll stomp around. They'll make themselves big. They'll pound the ground with their paws. They'll snap their jaws, and they'll make all sorts of vocalizations, like huffing and snorting and just making themselves big,” he said.
Lee heard those noises, according to Whipple, which indicated that the bear was not acting as a predator but in defense.
Lee did not respond to a request for comment, but Whipple said her recovery has been successful. While Whipple would have killed the bear if he had found it on-site that day, he said Lee did not want to see the bear euthanized.
“She loves wildlife,” Whipple said. “She's very comfortable around bears, you know, has seen all sorts of wildlife while hiking in a variety of different states. She was just in the literal wrong place at the wrong time.”
By now, there would be no way of knowing whether a bear found in the area is the same bear that attacked Lee, so game wardens are no longer looking for it.
Game wardens typically euthanize wild animals after they attack humans, Whipple said. A bear that has attacked a human would be considered a dangerous animal, and euthanizing it allows officials to test for rabies. Although any mammal can become infected with rabies, it is not common for bears to contract the disease, he said.
If Whipple had shot the bear, wardens would have attempted to catch its cubs and take them to a rehabilitation facility in New Hampshire, where they would have later been released.
A lot of bears
Of all the bear interactions Whipple has heard about and responded to, this situation seemed least likely to provoke an attack, he said. He’s chased a number of bears out of dumpsters this year, and he knows of instances in which people have deliberately fed the animals.
In this case, the bear was “doing everything that we want our bears to do” — wild foraging and staying in a heavily wooded area, Whipple said.
“This is just a really unfortunate, very low-chance encounter that happened,” said Jaclyn Comeau, a bear biologist with the Fish & Wildlife Department. “The majority of bears are not going to attack. They are going to do their best to avoid contact with us.”
Bear-human interactions have been increasing over the past decade, and that increase is more dramatic this year. So far in 2022, state officials have recorded more than 700 reports of bear incidents. Last year’s total was 650.
Multiple factors are at play, Comeau said. While the bear population is relatively stable, ranging from around 4,000 bears to 6,500 bears throughout the past decade, Comeau estimates that around 6,000 bears now roam the state.
“Outside of the islands in Lake Champlain, really everywhere in Vermont needs to be considered bear country at this point,” she said.
People may be seeing and interacting more with bears because of shifts in the animals’ behavior, she said. Bears are choosing to spend more time near humans.
“They have learned that there are high calorie, easy, reliable foods in human-dominated spaces, and so they're spending a lot more time searching for food in our backyards instead of out in the mountains and forests, where, 20 years ago, that's where they were staying,” Comeau said.
Human behavior plays a part, too, she said. More people are raising backyard chicken flocks and composting. A changed perception about wildlife may make human spaces more amenable to wild animals.
“I think for good reasons, we have become a lot more tolerant of (sharing) space with these animals,” Comeau said. “But through that change in our behavior, it's allowed them to learn that, hey, we can find easy food here. There's not much of a risk being close to these people, so let's keep doing that.”
The department encourages people to secure their food and backyard flocks to protect them from bears and to dissuade bears from adjusting to human spaces.
Those headed out into the wild can avoid interactions with bears by making noise on the trail, walking with other people and, for extra protection, bringing a can of bear spray. Most bears will keep their distance as long as they are not startled, Comeau said. For that reason, it is also a good idea for hikers to have strong control over their dogs.
“This is something that is a good reminder of the strength and power of a bear,” she said. “But it's not something that should prevent people from thinking they can safely recreate in Vermont's forests.”
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