Bear attacks unusual, but not unknown

Posted Sept. 15, 2010, at 5:50 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:26 p.m.

For the past few days, many Maine outdoors enthusiasts have paid particular attention to the story of guide Ryan Shepard.

Shepard, as you’ve likely heard, ended up on the wrong end of an angry 365-pound black bear on Monday, and suffered injuries to his right leg, arm and torso.

The bear had been cornered by the guide’s dogs, was shot, and subsequently it charged. It was then shot again and died, but not before mauling Shepard.

Jennifer Vashon, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who serves as the agency’s black bear specialist, said that while bear attacks are relatively uncommon, they can share some common characteristics.

“Given [Shepard’s] situation as I understand it, [with] a bear that is on the ground and cornered, you would expect [the bear] to respond just like any animal or person would in that situation. They fight,” Vashon said. “It is a common response. Bear hunters are aware of that and that’s why it hasn’t happened too often in the past. They’re cautious and know how to respond in those situations.”

Shepard’s experience surely was terrifying. Perhaps more terrifying: It wasn’t nearly as rare as you might expect.

Though a DIF&W spokesperson said on Tuesday that just three people have been reported injured by black bears in Maine over the past 30 years, the number is higher than that. A check of Bangor Daily News archives dating over the last 24 years reveals at least six attacks that resulted in injuries. No deaths were reported. And it’s impossible to know how many incidents simply were not reported.

A quick rundown of the bear attacks that the BDN has covered since 1986:

• September 1986: A 41-year-old Ellsworth Falls hunter was bitten on the leg by a wounded bear during a hunt in Osborn. Hunting dogs chased the bear out of the woods, and after the bear was shot, the dogs’ handler was attacked as he tried to get the dogs off the bear. The bear ran back into the woods and was not found. The hunter suffered punctured and lacerated muscles in his calf.

• June 1987: A camper from Massachusetts was bitten on both knees by a bear that then tried to drag him out of his tent and into the woods near Baxter State Park. The camper managed to scramble out of his sleeping bag as the bear dragged it — and him — toward the woods during the early-morning attack. The camper was treated at a hospital for puncture wounds to his legs, then returned to his campsite, retrieved his tent and set it up again.

• September 1987: A Patten guide was attacked by a 420-pound bear that had been treed and wounded when the bear descended from the tree. “He chewed my leg up a little bit,” the guide said in a BDN story. The guide was using hunting dogs to track the bear for a party of five or six hunters when the attack took place. He was bitten in the calf. The guide told the BDN that he told the first-time bear hunter to shoot the bear in the head, but “I guess he didn’t know which end the head was on, and he shot him in the ass.” The guide said he had been chased by bears before, “but I was always smart enough to run. This time I wasn’t smart enough.”

• September 1990: An Alexander guide was charged and mauled by a 200-pound bear while baiting bears in Crawford. The 200-pound bear left the guide with a “mangled left hand and bites on his abdomen, stomach, leg and head,” according to a BDN report at the time. “It was like black lightening. It happened instantly,” the guide said. The unarmed guide said he surprised the bear as it fed on the bait.

• October 1991: Two Maine guides were mauled in Carroll by a bear they had treed while showing a fellow guide how their dogs worked while tracking bears. The men were not hunting at the time, but were armed with revolvers. One man suffered leg wounds that required 30 stitches. The other was bitten on the shoulder and buttocks. The men treed the 400-pound bear, which descended when the men were leaving. The men shot and killed the bear during the attack.

• June 2004: A Standish teenager taking photos of a black bear as it raided a bird feeder was attacked by a mother bear that had two cubs nearby. The teen was about 25 feet from the bear before the attack. He suffered claw wounds to his arm as he tried to retreat to the home’s deck. He was not hospitalized, but did receive a tetanus shot.

Also in the DIF&W files, but unverifiable in BDN accounts: A 1986 incident in which a Bradford hunter — also a former boxer — punched a black bear in the nose to repel an attack.

Vashon said the expertise of the guides who take clients hunting over hounds should be credited with keeping the bear attack total as low as it has been.

“[The bear that attacked Shepard] was cornered in heavy cover and had no option but to fight. I think it was just the circumstances,” Vashon said. “Given that we have a six-week hound season you could expect this to happen even more, but I think it comes down to hunters knowing black bears and the risk, and taking precautions to protect the dogs.”

MTA weekend set

The Maine Trappers Association will hold its annual fall rendezvous from Friday through Sunday at Silver Spur Riding Club in Sidney.

A number of demonstrations are scheduled, as are activities for children. Gates open at 1 p.m. on Friday, and the event finishes up at noon on Sunday.

Admission is $5 per adult. Camping costs $35 for the weekend while tailgaters will pay $15. For more information, go to http://mta.homestead.com/.

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