Every summer the few bear attacks that occur become instant front page news. Today reports surfaced of a hiker attacked by a mother grizzly bear with cubs in Glacier National Park, Montana. The hiker was injured but survived and was able to walk to help. With every news story comes the propagation of false information about bears. Last week, the NY Times reported in the article Human Run-Ins With Bears May Portend Deeper Changes that “Bears [are]— dangerous and unpredictable always —”. This information is simply not true (humans have been safely coexisting with grizzly bears in Katmai N. Park for decades), yet the media insists on teaching the public that bears are unpredictable monsters.
The truth is, bears are no more unpredictable than any other wild animal. The unpredictable myth is perhaps the deepest fear propagated by people who know nothing about bears! It is nearly impossible to watch a documentary or show on bears where they are not called “unpredictable” and where the narrator does not mention that bears are dangerous to people. Do they ever do this on shows about lions? Or cheetahs? Or hippos? No. But for some reason bears are always described as dangerous and unpredictable, even though there is no basis for this claim, especially in comparison to other predators (like humans) which kill many more people per year than bears.
And what is so wrong with “unpredictable” anyways? Being predictable means you are an organism that follows instinct only. More intelligent animals are less predictable because they can learn behavior, adapt to new situations, and use their brains to survive and not just rely on instinct. Grizzly bears, like humans or primates, are very intelligent opportunists. They learn to adapt to new situations, new food sources, new challenges, new threats. This is not inherently a bad thing, and does not translate into being indiscriminate killers! It simply means your brain adapts to new situations better than a grasshopper or a bee.
Bear attacks have been thoroughly studied and what we have learned is that most bear attacks occur when a bear is severely stressed. This can occur from injury, starvation, disease, or a shrinking eco system. As wild spaces are destroyed there is less and less space for predators to survive, and human-animal conflicts may be increased. But bear attacks are quite predictable and can be avoided. Most attacks occur when a hiker stumbles upon a cached prey, such as an elk or moose. Grizzlies are defensive around a large kill of meat. Mothers with cubs may also be defensive of their young, and require a greater amount of personal space to not feel threatened. But these are not fixed rules at all.
For example, in Katmai N. Park, where food is abundant and hunting prohibited, mother bears with cubs have learned that the safest place to be is NEAR humans. They have learned that male grizzlies tend to avoid getting close to human bear viewers, or the bear viewing stands in places like Brooks Falls. The mother grizzlies of Katmai actually stash their cubs with groups of human bear viewers to protect the cubs! One mother we knew very well would leave her cubs with us to babysit while she fished for salmon. This is a sign of the complex social intelligence of bears.
Here are a few bear attack statistics to also put things in perspective:
- You are 12 times more likely to die of a bee sting than a bear attack (120 times more likely compared to a black bear)
- You are 10 times more likely to die from a dog attack than a bear attack (45 times more likely compared to a black bear attack)
- 1 person out of 16,000 commits murder but only 1 grizzly bear out of 50,000 ever kills someone and only 1 black bear out of one million does. So people are much more dangerous than bears!
- There are about 750,000 black bears in North America and on average there is less than one black bear killing per year.
- For each person killed by a black bear attack there are 13 people killed by snakes, 17 by spiders, 45 by dogs, 120 by bees, 150 by tornadoes, 374 by lightning, and 60,000 by humans.
Now why are we so afraid of bears? Why do they make the front page, when the abuse, violence, rape, and murder by humans is so commonplace that it doesn’t even make it in the newspaper at all?
This is a complex issue, and I invite you to read two articles written by my husband and I:
Are grizzly bears dangerous?
Do Grizzly Bears Eat People?
Lastly, many attacks could be avoided if hikers carried hand held marine flares, which is the safety device used on the coast of Katmai N. Park. The flares can be clipped to your belt for easy access, and ignite by simply pulling a string. Bears will run due to their natural fear of fire, and the loud noise and smoke that the flare generates. You also don’t have to aim like bear spray. Other ways to prevent attacks include hiking and camping in groups larger than three, camping behind an electric fence, and making noise (talking, singing) when coming around blind curves in a trail to alert bears to your presence.