Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Omaha Zoo's Wildlife Safari Park
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North American black bears, like the one pictured here at Omaha Zoo's Wildlife Safari Park, have growing populations in the U.S.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Omaha Zoo's Wildlife Safari Park

Why a Bear Attacked a Teen In His Sleep

Waking up with his head inside the bear's mouth, the camp counselor was likely the bear's targeted prey.

While sleeping under the stars in the mountains near Boulder County, Colorado, on Sunday morning, a 19-year-old camp counselor was awoken by what he initially perceived to be a loud crunching sound. The sound, it turned out, was a black bear pressing onto his head as it dragged him from his sleeping bag.

Speaking with local Denver news station KMGH-TV, the teen, who was identified only as Dylan, claimed he believed the crunching sound was caused by the bear's teeth digging into his skull.

As the bear tugged at him, Dylan and the four other campers sleeping by the lake tried to fight the bear off. He estimates the bear dragged him a total of 12 feet before he was able to pry himself free.

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Dylan teaches wilderness survival at the camp and knew the best way to fend off a black bear attack is to fight back. He and the other campers attempted to scare the bear away before it eventually left. (When confronted with other bears, such as grizzlies, experts recommend curling into a ball.)

The 19-year-old was treated at a nearby hospital and received staples for his wounds.

"I'm not afraid of the bears. I'm not afraid of sleeping outside anymore. You just have to be aware and respect the animals," Dylan told KMGH-TV.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is now on the hunt for the bear, which they say they will euthanize if it can be caught. Initial surveys of the campgrounds after the attack did not find any food that could have attracted the bear, making the incident even more unusual.

In fact, the unprovoked attack has rattled the community so much that any bear caught in the area over the next few days will likely be euthanized, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson told the Associated Press.

"It sounds like a predatory attack. I assume the bear was intent on killing and eating that guy," said Dave Garshelis, a wildlife research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who studies bears.

Garshelis explained that bears are typically wary of people, and it's likely the bear was trying to drag Dylan away from the other campers so that it could more easily prey on him.

"I assume it wouldn't have dragged him if he was alone."

One of Many

This isn't the first shocking black bear attack to take place this summer. On July 5, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported four black bears had been killed in one day. Two of the bears were shot by homeowners after they entered homes and two were euthanized by state officials after killing livestock.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski told local news that the decision to kill bears depends on how aggressively each bear has behaved and if it presents a threat to human safety. In the past week, the state office has received over 100 calls about bear sightings that qualify as conflict situations, or situations in which bears present a threat to safety.

“It’s going to be a long summer with bears until we start getting some moisture," Lewandoski told local reporters.

Bryan Peterson from Bear Smart Durango in Colorado told the Durango Herald that July can be a difficult month for bears to find food. As the lush spring vegetation dries and August berries are yet to bloom, bears have a more difficult time foraging. The notoriously opportunistic eaters often wander into human areas in search of dinner.

Garshelis confirmed that July can be a difficult "transition" period for bears when they have more difficulty finding food.

Rising Attacks?

Only a few weeks prior, shocking back-to-back bear attacks in Alaska left the region stunned. While running in a race, 16-year-old Patrick Cooper was mauled after he veered from the race path. The day following Cooper's death, a mine contractor working 300 miles north of Anchorage was also mauled by a black bear.

At the time, Ken Marsh from Alaska Department of Fish and Game told National Geographic that the attacks had all the markings of a predatory attack. Until then, only six deaths had been linked to bear attacks in the U.S. in the past 130 years.

As many as 88 percent of bear attacks are caused by a male black bear on the prowl for food, according to a 2011 study.

Black bears are not typically aggressive toward people, but several factors could explain the recent increase in reported incidents. As humans increasingly encroach upon bear territory, the chances of a dangerous encounter with the animals become more likely. In Alaska, for example, human populations have nearly doubled in the past 60 years, and Colorado is seeing some of the fastest population growth in the nation. Black and grizzly bears also have healthy, growing populations in North America.