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Bear population at 163,000 in East




HARLAN, Ky.

Bobby Koger was deer hunting on a Kentucky hillside when a black bear gave him the fright of his life.

A 300-pound (136-kilogram) animal, apparently unhappy that an intruder was on his turf, came charging and didn’t stop until Koger raised his .50 caliber muzzleloading rifle and fired from point-blank range. A hunting companion who witnessed the attack from a distance also shot the bruin, which wheeled, ran a short distance and collapsed.

Conservation officers concluded that they fired in self-defense at a bear that had lost its natural fear of humans.

With black bear populations rising, run-ins have become almost commonplace — more than 15,000 in the past year in states east of the Mississippi River according to a survey of state wildlife agencies.

Canadian bear researcher Hank Hristienko, who conducted the survey in January, found that 18 Eastern states were seeing more encounters with bears.

Most encounters involve hungry bears raiding backyard bird feeders or toppling garbage bins, but sometimes they’re harrowing. In a 2006 attack, a 210-pound male bear killed a 6-year-old girl and mauled her 2-year-old brother as well as her mother who tried to fend off the animal. The attack occurred during a family outing in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest.

Some bears have become brazen, dining beneath backyard fruit trees, raiding pet food bowls, even chasing campers. At a park near Prestonsburg last year, a bear held tourists at bay inside a cabin until rangers arrived to chase it away.

They have also become road hazards. Wildlife agencies reported more than 1,300 struck by automobiles in 2008.

The U.S. bear population more than doubled between 1989 and 2006, rising from 165,000 to over 350,000, according to The International Association of Bear Research and Management, a bear conservation nonprofit that takes a periodic census of the animals. The Eastern states alone now have about 163,000 bears, according to findings Hristienko released in May.

Biologists with the same group found nearly 20,000 reported conflicts between bears and humans in 37 states in a 2006 survey of state wildlife agencies.

More recently, in the Eastern region alone, 18 states reported an increase in bear-human conflicts over the past year, Hristienko found in his survey of wildlife agencies.

Tennessee reported the largest increase, up from 300 to 1,000 over the past 10 years. That was followed by New York, which went from 587 to 1,127, and New Jersey, which jumped from 691 encounters to 1,117.

Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, said 14 people have been killed in attacks by black bears in North America since 2000, including two in Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest. Boyles said another 10 people were killed by grizzlies during the period, mostly in Alaska and Canada.


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