Killer bear: Woman's death inside her home marks California's first fatal black bear attack

FILE - A Black Bear eats a Kokanee salmon it caught in the Taylor Creek Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Wildlife biologists and forest rangers at Lake Tahoe and across the West have been preaching the mantra for decades: Don't feed the bears! But a new study by scientists at the University of Nevada suggests it's okay to feed the birds at least the mountain chickadees on a ridge that bears their name on the north shore of a lake near the California-Nevada line. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
A black bear eats a Kokanee salmon it caught in the Taylor Creek in October 2017 in South Lake Tahoe. A woman in Downieville, Calif., was fatally attacked by a black bear in November. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A 71-year-old woman who was found dead inside her Sierra County home last November had been mauled by a black bear, the first such fatal attack in California history.

Patrice Miller's body was discovered inside her Downieville home on Nov. 8, 2023, by Sierra County Sheriff's Office deputies who had been summoned to conduct a welfare check. Deputies discovered a grisly scene with evidence that a bear had been inside, likely for several days, feeding on the woman's remains, authorities said.

Initially, investigators thought she had died prior to the bear's entry. However, an autopsy report completed last month revealed that Miller was killed when the animal swiped or bit her neck, Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher told KCRA-TV.

"Black bears are not dangerous animals, but if they associate our homes or cabins or campgrounds as an easy source of food they lose their natural fear of people and their actions get bolder and bolder," said Peter Tira, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This is the most extreme example we've seen in state history."

Miller's death is the first known fatal attack by a black bear in California. Grizzly bears, which are featured on the state flag and are known to be more aggressive than black bears, haven't been seen in California in 100 years. Reports of black bear attacks in California are rare and have never resulted in a human death until now.

Downieville is a small mountain community, with a population of about 300 people, on the banks of the Yuba River. It has become a popular destination for mountain bikers and anglers.

Read more: As hungry bears awaken from hibernation, a California mountain village braces for invasion

The bear, which was not in the home when authorities arrived, was trapped near the residence after Miller's death. The bear, a male, was euthanized and DNA analysis confirmed the animal was the one that had attacked Miller, Tira said.

Authorities said Miller had been having an issue with bears on the property prior to her death. She'd feed her cats on the front porch and had trash on the property.

Miller's daughter told officials 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." Her mother even nicknamed one of the bears that was a "frequent visitor to the residence, and a nuisance," according to a Sheriff's Office report.

California is home to an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 black bears that reside predominately in forest or mountain regions across the state. Adult females can weigh between 100 and 300 pounds and adult males typically weigh between 150 and 400 pounds with some upwards of 500 pounds.

Read more: Man fatally shoots bear cub near Lake Tahoe, angering residents

The omnivores, who are skilled scavengers, are known to head to residential communities in search of food, particularly during the spring and summer months. In Monrovia last month, a bear visited a home and left holding a package of Nabisco cookies in its mouth, earning it the nickname "Oreo."

Black bear encounters that result in human injury are rare in California. Most attacks are defensive actions if the bear is protecting cubs or becomes startled. However, in some cases a bear that's food conditioned may become aggressive toward people.

Read more: Bear named 'Oreo' roams Monrovia in search of food — and snags namesake cookies

The state's fish and wildlife agency recommends that people who encounter a bear avoid eye contact, make noise and back away slowly while also making themselves look bigger. If a bear makes contact the person should fight back, the agency said.

After Miller's death, sheriff's officials cautioned residents in Downieville to close their doors and windows at night, lock vehicles and remove all outside food sources, including their garbage.

"The Sierra County Sheriff’s Office extends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Patrice Miller during this difficult time," the agency wrote in a news release last year. "The loss of a community member is always a tragedy, and our thoughts are with those affected by this unfortunate event."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.