First deadly black bear attack on human in California documented

Jun 7, 2024, 1:57 PM

The first documented case of a deadly black bear attack on a human in California history took place...

The first documented case of a deadly black bear attack on a human in California history took place in Sierra County, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Mandatory Credit: KCRA via CNN Newsource

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DOWNIEVILLE, California (KCRA) — The first documented case of a deadly black bear attack on a human in California history took place in Sierra County, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The attack was in November 2023, but it took time for investigators to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

“Downieville, being a pretty small, tight-knit community, everybody kind of takes care of everybody and keeps an eye out,” said Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher.

At first, a November call to the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office seemed standard.

“Our office got a request for a welfare check,” he explained.

Nothing prepared them for what came next.

“Something I had never seen before,” said the sheriff.

It all happened just steps away from his office.

“This is Patrice Miller’s house that she was living in,” Fisher said as she showed KCRA3 the home.

The 71-year-old woman had not been seen for a few days. So, a deputy came to check on her.

“Upon showing up, [they] immediately saw evidence of bear intrusion into the house,” Fisher said. “The door was broken. There was bear scat on the porch.”

Inside, there was a gruesome scene. The deputy found Miller dead, along with more clues into what happened.

“It appeared that the bear had probably been there several days and had been feeding on the remains.”

At the time, officials were saying that Miller likely died of natural causes before that bear broke in.

Even after the scene was cleared, the sheriff said the bear returned daily to the home in the heart of town.

“I was getting a lot of phone calls from concerned citizens that live in the area and other county employees,” Fisher said.

The sheriff said he called on the Department of Fish and Wildlife to help.

However, he said he was denied because the request to euthanize the bear had to come from a tenant or property owner.

“I had to relay several times that this individual was deceased and had been eaten by a bear,” Fisher said.

Eventually, a deputy determined Miller had been renting, and he was able to locate the property owner to secure a depredation permit.

A bear was trapped on the property.

“That began a whole second drawn-out issue,” Fisher said.

He said wildlife officials thought they caught the wrong bear—a female, not a male. And they wanted to release it.

“I told the trapper I was seizing his trap and seizing the bear, and we placed a padlock on the bear trap.”

The sheriff demanded a more thorough check first, threatening to call KCRA 3 News if not.

“Ultimately, the biologist got here and tranquilized the bear. Once the bear was asleep, we opened up the cage, and it was a male bear.”

The bear was euthanized.

All the bear activity then cooled off as winter set in.

However, the investigation into Miller’s death took an unexpected turn.

An autopsy revealed Miller did not die of natural causes after all.

“Patrice had passed away due to a bear mauling or a swipe in a bite to the neck area,” Sheriff Fisher said.

It is the first record of a deadly black bear attack in California history Fish and Wildlife confirmed to KCRA 3 Investigates.

“It’s a big deal,” said Steve Gonzalez with Fish and Wildlife. “That doesn’t happen in California. Normally a bear is going to stay away from you, a bear that hasn’t been normalized to human behavior.”

That is something that is increasingly becoming more of an issue though. In fact, Miller had been having problems with bears for a while.

“This particular house had a lot of bear attractants,” Sheriff Fisher said. “It had a lot of garbage. Patrice had cats and would feed them on the front porch of the house with cat food.”

A sheriff’s office report shows Miller’s daughter said that “bears were constantly trying to get in through broken windows, and that her mother had physically hit one to keep it from entering her residence. A bear her mother named ‘big bastard’ was a frequent visitor to the residence.”

The sheriff told KCRA 3 that he was not informed about these issues before launching the investigation into Miller’s death.

After the winter lull, reports of bear break-ins climbed again by spring.

“No matter how many times we’d tell the guests, ‘Don’t leave food in your cars. Lock your car doors at night,’ the visitors, they don’t always listen. They’ll leave a snack bar or something, and the bears will find it,” said Sonya Meline, the owner of the Carriage House Inn.

She is used to bears being curious, but she did say she noticed one bear was behaving differently than the others.

“This particular bear was going door to door to door. It was not a normal bear,” Meline said.

“One of my concerns was I still didn’t know if the bear that had mauled Patrice was indeed the bear that we euthanized,” Fisher said.

As the sheriff waited on DNA results to find out, he got call after call about an aggressive bear, including one from the Hunter family in May.

“You can see his paw prints down there. This was all full of paw prints,” D.J. Hunter showed KCRA where a bear had broken in repeatedly to get to food in a freezer.

The third time the bear showed up, D.J.’s 82-year-old father, Dale Hunter, was home alone taking a nap.

“I just happened to wake up on the couch and there was a 450-pound bear looking at me,” Dale said. “So, I stood up. I guess I was taller than he was because he went off to the back door.”

“At that point, I had decided enough was enough,” Fisher said.

The sheriff tried something new this time, issuing his own public safety declaration to euthanize the black bear.

“Second day, I received a call from my dispatch,” he said.

The school in Downieville reported the bear was trying to get into the gym.

“It was pretty scary because, like, the kids were at school,” Sonya Meline said.

A deputy responded, believing this was the same bear Dale had seen in his living room.

“Yeah, he was a big boy. I’m glad they got him,” Dale said.

“After that bear was euthanized, our bear activity in Downieville, we saw a massive decrease,” the sheriff said.

DNA results have since confirmed that the first bear that had been euthanized back in November was the one responsible for Miller’s death.

“I don’t want every black bear that steps foot into my community to be euthanized,” the sheriff said. “My primary concern is the public safety of my local citizens and my visitors that come to our communities.”

It is a growing task as bear encounters statewide become more and more common.

“I think in a lot of instances it’s education, letting people know some of the steps that they can take to keep their property safe, to keep themselves safe, and to keep bears wild,” Gonzalez with Fish and Wildlife said.

“We live where they live. We all live together in this beautiful forest,” Meline said.

Lake Tahoe communities have also experienced an increase in bear break-ins in recent years. In response, a nonprofit called Bear League has been loaning out electric doormats to homeowners afterwards to deter bears from returning.

The Sierra County sheriff said that could be helpful, but he does not have the budget to be able to provide that for residents.

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First deadly black bear attack on human in California documented