America's Rabid Bears: cases rare - a concern nonetheless?

North Carolina officials have confirmed a dead bear reported to the Wildlife Resources Commission has tested positive for rabies. The bear’s carcass was discovered in Hyde County according to news reports.

Photo | Andrew E Russell (Creative Commons)

The confirmation of a black bear infected with the rabies virus is the first in North Carolina’s recorded history. According to the state’s furbearer biologist, Colleen Olfenbuttel, only four cases of rabies in wild black bears has been documented in the continental U.S. since 1999.

Those cases include a Maryland family who fended off an aggressive bear as it tried to tear into their home through an open window in 2007; and a pair of groundskeepers who shot and killed an attacking bear after the animal tried to destroy the ATV they were sitting in, before charging them. An additional report was also previously noted in Pennsylvania.

Instances of rabid bears aren’t isolated to just the United States, or even just black bears. According to the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, the first confirmed case of rabies in a Polar bear was reported in November of 1989 by Inuit hunters in Northwest Territories of Canada. The polar bear reportedly suffered from posterior paralysis (observed dragging its hind legs) as a result of histologic lesions in the animal’s spinal cord. In 2011, officials believed the rabies virus was to blame for a polar bear that rampaged through the village of Churchill, Manitoba. The animal bounded through backyards and patios, breaking a gate before going into the downtown area of the village. The animal was killed by conservation officers after it attacked their truck not once, but twice, despite non-lethal warning shots.

A brown bear confirmed rabid in Romania attacked five people in 2004, killing one. The animal was dispatched by hunters after it attacked an ambulance arriving on scene.

In all of these instances, a loaded firearm was the only buffer between the victims and the sick bears. (There’s my official plug for the Second Amendment. You’re welcome.)

No Hype, Just Facts

The rabies virus is no stranger to furbearers such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Cases are also regularly reported in urban rodents such as woodchucks. Its less-common in flying mammals such as bats, and has even been confirmed in semi-aquatic critters like beavers and river otters. Bottom-line, any warm-blooded mammal is susceptible to the disease, whether its a rarity or not. We reported on USDA’s continued efforts to track and monitor the disease here in the Northeast. Ironically enough, mere days after the USDA report, we received word of a rabid bobcat which attacked three people in the Upper Valley region of Vermont just a few weeks ago.

As the headline above says, the reports of rabid bears is extremely rare - but is it still cause for concern?

Bear attacks on people are typically envisioned as taking place in the backcountry of America’s wilderness - the result of the “frontier lifestyle” that many in an urban setting only romanticize about. I can assure you that regardless of where you live in the world, you are no longer at the top of the food chain when you’ve locked eyes with a bear suffering from the rabies virus. Whether its in the wilds of Alaska, or the suburban backyards of New Jersey.

The rabies virus is regarded as a density-dependent disease, meaning the more vectors (animals susceptible) on a landscape that can contract the virus, the more it is likely to spread. Hunting and trapping activities on the landscape are permitted, and promoted by wildlife agencies, in part, to aid in reducing the spread and continued monitoring of these diseases.

With animal protectionists and politicians seeking to squeeze out regulated hunting and trapping activities from coast to coast, and a reported overall “decline” in furbearer trapping and general hunting activities across the United States, is there a correlation with rabid bears?

Whether theres a connection or not, the timing of recent headlines got the gears in my head turning just a bit.

A Sign of the Times?

Whether rabid bear cases through the 2000’s are a sign of increase in the transmission of the disease, or simply because the modern computer era allows for better record-keeping remains to be determined. One has to wonder how far back record-keeping for rabid wildlife goes from state to state. Officials in Maine, for example, stated they’ve only been tracking rabid wildlife cases since 1994, according to reports pertaining to a rabid otter that attacked a tourist on a Maine beach this past June.

The North Carolina rabid bear discovery comes as bears seem to be popular in the headlines lately. Whether its predator protectionists lobbying to keep healthy Grizzly populations on the ESA, or New Jersey’s governor attempting to put a complete stop to bear hunting in his state; the topic of increasing bear populations comes at a time when anti-hunting groups are trumpeting a decline in hunters as grounds for removal of any and all predator management.

Photo | Chris Geirman

New Hampshire is just one Northeast state that saw a surge in conflicts between bears and humans this past year. A natural food shortage of mast has been reported as the likely cause. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Bear Project Leader, Andrew Timmins, says there were around 800 reports of bear-human conflicts in 2018, compared with only 410 in 2017. Bears dispatched by both the state and residents from conflict situations are also on the rise. The state killed eight nuisance bears compared to two in 2017. Residents killed 24, which is up from 14 last year. Timmins stated the food shortage and bear uptick is cyclical - taking place every 8 to 10 years.

In all fairness, records increased for NH bear hunters this year, too. A total of 1,052 bears were taken by hunters, which is 46% above the previous 5-year average, and a new state record over the previous record of 898 in 2016 according to reports.

Should we be concerned about the whirlwind of increased bear populations in the Northeast; bear protections populating legislative halls across North America; and now reports of bears contracting rabies?

Personally, I’m not hitting the “panic” button just yet - I’m a firm believer in cyclical cycles. However, I am concerned with a growing narrative from people who believe wildlife management “isn’t needed” for large predators. If the regulated and controlled harvest of bears is politically ripped from the country’s wildlife management tool box - well… then maybe I’ll start to sweat a little.