“We’re expanding into wildlife habitat that they’ve held for eons,” said Bruce Sitko, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Pinetop regional office.
Lana Hollingsworth, 61, died in June from an attack near the Pinetop Country Club. The large, adult male black bear repeatedly mauled her while she was out walking her dog late at night.
However, black bear attacks are rare, and fatalities are extremely uncommon, experts say. The only other documented fatal bear attack in Arizona occurred in the late 1800s, and it involved a grizzly, a type of bear no longer found in the state.
Across the U.S., fatalities from bears are equally rare, with three deaths in 2010, said Tad Theimer, an associate professor of biology at Northern Arizona University. By comparison, 32 people died last year from dog attacks.
But as Arizona cities and towns, such as Pinetop-Lakeside, continue to expand into black bear territory, encounters between people and bears are likely to increase, making it important to be aware that they are out there, experts say.
“Generally bears don’t bother people, but they can,” said Don Swann, a biologist at Saguaro National Park near Tucson.
Ranging from the Mogollon Rim to southeastern Arizona’s tall, isolated mountains known as sky islands, approximately 2,500 to 3,000 bears live in Arizona, according to Game and Fish.
With large territories, bears travel between forest and desert areas, including lower elevations surrounding Tucson, Swann said.
Black bears are most common in the White Mountains.
The Game and Fish office in Pinetop received around 300 calls last year about sightings of and damage by bears. As a result, officials relocated about 20 female and young male bears, Sitko said.
Females and male bears under 3 years old are sedated, tagged and released at neutral locations, while adult males are destroyed immediately, he said. Eighty percent of the bears that are relocated typically return and are then destroyed.
In the Pinetop region, approximately 10 to 12 bears were destroyed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in 2010, Sitko said. So far this year, 11 have been destroyed.
It’s a policy designed to minimize contact and harm, but the fault doesn’t lie solely with the bears, he said.
“It’s people that are causing the problem,” Sitko said.
Lured by garbage, bears displaced by drought or territory encroachment can turn to residential areas to find food. And once they get a taste, they keep coming back.
Sitko estimates that Pinetop-Lakeside households leaving garbage bins or other rotting food outside have a 70 percent chance of being visited by a bear. Keeping the garbage bin inside reduces the likelihood of a visit to almost zero, he said.
In an effort to reduce the food attractants and inform residents, the communities of Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside as well as Navajo County passed ordinances this year making it unlawful to leave food or garbage in unsecured areas. Gila, Maricopa and Pima counties have similar measures in place.
Nearly all black bear attacks are by aggressive, predatory males, and reducing the possibility of running into one is critical, NAU’s Theimer said.
“Bears were attacking people because they thought they were prey,” he said, adding that it’s more likely to happen because bears are feeding on garbage near residential areas.
Sitko said that while black bears can be highly aggressive, there have been only seven recorded attacks in Arizona in the past 20 years.
The key, he said, is keeping bears from associating people with food.
“Bears are as individualistic as people; some can be more mellow and some highly aggressive,” Theimer said.
Anna Consie is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.