How Black Bears Became the Latest News Meme

The media discovers bears.


Black bears wandered through residential areas long before Tony Soprano had one of his wise guys keep an eye out for ursine intruders in season five. But Ursus Americanus didn’t really get its big break until the YouTube era incentivized local news teams to create adorable animal stories, a phenomenon that happened to coincide with habitat destruction. The videos are indeed cute, but they work because they have a hint of danger to them (though black bears have killed only 61 people in the last century).

People like looking at furry, charismatic creatures — could there be a bear in your back yard? Stay tuned!

Over any given 24-hour period, a few dozen local news outlets want to tell you about bears. Between June 24 and 25, there were black bears in travel between Maryland and Virginia, in the Canadian city of Edmonton, in Atlanta, New Carlisle, Indiana, and on the outskirts of Charlotte, South Carolina. That’s one Ohio State Fair short of a Charlie Daniels Band tour.

Some of the factors here are ecological. Black bears are more active in the summer months, which means a Google Trends query for “black bear sighting” looks like this, with peaks every June:

But it’s not just the weather. Bears are pulling a surreptitious Rise of the Planet of the Bears. There are more than 300,000 black bears in the lower 48 states, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and an estimated 60 percent of American and Canadian bear populations are growing. Why? A big factor is better wildlife management, but easier access to agricultural food sources like apples and corn near protected habitats plays a role. Couple this with increasingly fragmented habitats, and that’s a recipe for more human-bear meet-cutes.

And it particularly helps their viral cred when black bears do weird things like walk on two legs (this bear’s front paws were likely hurt in a car accident). We know it’s totally not a person in a suit, because ABC New Jersey checked with experts.

What does this all mean for the average local man? Not much, except that the news isn’t lying. If trends continue, late Spring is going to be bear season from here on out. That’s fine, as long as we’re willing to be careful and call the tips line.

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