California Woman Killed by Black Bear in State's First Documented Fatal Attack

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

People are increasingly moving into areas occupied by large animals, and some of those same large animals are learning that hanging around near humans makes for easy living. That is bound to lead to confrontations and, in the case of bears, what wildlife managers call "undesirable human/bear interactions," which often result in the bear's death. Sometimes, though, it's the other way around.


A Sierra County, California, woman has become the Golden State's first documented fatality from a black bear attack:

Patrice Miller, 71, was found dead in her Downieville home last November, but a recently released autopsy report by California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has verified she was killed by a bear, the Sierra County Sheriff’s department said. 

A sheriff’s deputy discovered Miller deceased in her home while conducting a welfare check after a grocery store employee reported that she had not been seen or heard from for several days, according to Sheriff Michael Fisher. 

The sheriff’s office said when they found Miller, there were clear signs a bear had been inside the house. But officials believed Miller had died of natural causes and the bear broke into the house after her death and had been feeding on her remains.

The bear was eventually trapped and euthanized, the sheriff said. 

However, a recently released autopsy revealed that Miller did not die of natural causes but had in fact been killed by the bear, the sheriff said.

As sad as this result is, it seems that Patrice Miller was ignoring some standard precautions for those who live in bear country. When bears (or any large predator) start associating humans with food, things rarely end well:


 “Post investigation, we found out that she had been having some bear issues at the house. And after we concluded our coroner’s investigation and removed her remains from the house, the bear continued to break into the house over and over again over the next several days,” Fisher added.

The sheriff said further investigation revealed bears had been prowling around Miller’s house for some time because she would leave cat food on the front porch for her cats and there was garbage around the home as well. Miller’s daughter also told authorities that one particular bear would come to the house quite often and her mother had put bars on the windows to keep the bear away.

The necessity of bars, frankly, should have been a warning sign. Leaving cat food, which is odoriferous, outside is somewhat akin to placing a sign for bears saying, "Food Available Here." Bears have an uncanny sense of smell. My grandfather was fond of quoting what he claimed was an old Indian truism - "A tree falls in the woods. The eagle sees it, the deer hears it, and the bear smells it."

See Related: Massachusetts: Bear Drags Car Crash Victim's Body Into Woods 

Vacation Season Cautions: Large Animals Can Be Dangerous


Fatal black bear attacks may be new to California, but in the years 1900 to 2009, according to a 2011 study, 63 people were killed in 59 incidents by "non-captive" black bears in Canada, Alaska, and the lower 48. Fatal attacks were predominantly carried out by young male bears:

We judged that the bear involved acted as a predator in 88% (49 of 56) of fatal incidents. Adult (n = 23) or subadult (n = 10) male bears were involved in 92% (33 of 36) of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears. That most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by 1 bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.

Not only are the young males more likely to attack, but they are also more likely to attack with predatory intent, which isn't surprising, as young male predators on their own are generally dispersing to new areas and still learning to feed themselves, often existing on the edge of starvation and willing to take on prey that more experienced animals might shy away from. This is also an important lesson for any people in bear country: while a mother black bear might try to chase you away from her cubs, if a big male attacks, he is likely trying to eat you - so fight back!


In a similar story, two Colorado children were attacked by cow elk in separate incidents in the mountain town of Estes Park, which lies outside the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. The elk were protecting their calves in the immediate area; neither child was seriously injured. Wildlife officials used bean bag rounds to haze the elk away from the housing area where the attacks happened.

Summer's coming. Watch out for large animals and, when encountered, give them a wide berth. And if you're camping, keep your campsites clean.


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