Reality Bites

Are America's predators out of control, or just the media?

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Nature bared its fangs in 2001 and the media ate it up. Prime-time anchormen pounced on a spree of shark attacks. The Associated Press churned out a steady supply of "Grizzly Mauls Hunter" and "Mountain Lion Stalks Hiker" stories. And three people died in the jaws of alligators in Florida. Has nature become more hazardous to our collective health? Is mismanagement to blame? Or are these attacks just overhyped exceptions?

** Bears**
The Headlines: Black bears are sprouting like mushrooms throughout suburbia and surly bruins have developed a taste for outdoorsmen.

What Happened: New Mexico's upsurge of black bear encounters started with minor attacks-one bear bit two Boy Scouts; later another bear chased three visiting Texans, chomping one on the ankle. But then a bear broke into a home in Cleveland, N.Mex., and killed a 93-year-old great-grandmother.

Grizzlies have also taken their toll. Last summer, two bowhunters in Montana survived an attack by a grizzly that was lured by their elk cow call. And as this report was being complied another hunter-ambushed while gutting an elk-was killed.

Hype or Mismanagement? Black bear numbers, and complaints, are way up. And poor wildlife management certainly plays a role. It's no surprise that in places where hunts have been canceled-New Jersey, New Mexico, Colorado and Ontario-problems with black bears have grown. Grizzly population surveys are less reliable, in part because of the political wrangling over their endangered status. Lots of grizzlies would mean, among other things, possible sport-hunting, which many environmental groups strongly oppose.

** Alligators**
The Headlines: Florida has lots of gators and lots of people. Both populations have exploded over the last 30 years and more people are getting bit.

What Happened: A woman swimming at a nudist colony near Tampa last summer lost her foot to a 350-pound gator that measured nearly 10 feet long. Her husband saved her life by repeatedly kicking the alligator in the head. Sanibel Island resident Robert Steele wasn't so fortunate. While walking his dog along a canal last September, the 82-year-old was fatally bitten by a 10-foot, 9-inch monster that dragged him into the water, severing his leg in the process.

Hype or Mismanagement? Last year was the deadliest on record-alligators killed three people and wounded several others. Since the state started closely tracking gator attacks in 1972, the number of incidents has increased from an average of 4.9 attacks per year over the first 10 years of the program to 14.9 attacks per year during the last decade.

Sportsmen don't have a meaningful role in controlling alligators in Florida-the roughly 2,500 gators killed by hunters each year is too small to make a dent in the overall population, which numbers more than a million.

** Sharks**
The Headlines: Beachgoers become victims of a shark attack "epidemic."

What Happened: Eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast had his arm ripped off by a bull shark in northwestern Florida, but survived because of the dramatic rescue made by his uncle. (The uncle dragged the shark onto the beach, beat the shark senseless and retrieved the boy's arm.) Afterward we were treated to a series of stories highlighting attacks in Florida, Virginia (where a boy was killed), California and the Bahamas.

Hype or Mismanagement? Despite the media hype, 2001 was no worse than 2000. At press time there were 51 attacks in the United States in 2001, with two fatalities, while in 2000, there were 54 attacks with one fatality, according to the International Shark File. But it's also true that shark attacks have risen like the stock market for the past several decades-there have been peaks and valleys, but the general trend is up.