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February 1995

Facing Grizzly Bear Fears

Hiking in grizzly territory requires preparation, respect, and a clear head. A little luck doesn't hurt, either.

Hiking in grizzly territory requires preparation, respect, and a clear head. A little luck doesn’t hurt, either. by Jeff Rennicke

There are still some wild places where you share the land with a free-ranging creature capable of bringing down an elk or crushing the skull of a moose with a single blow. Just knowing this can either bring the landscape alive or leave you quaking in fear. At the very least, it should inspire you to take a few precautions to avoid a chance run-in.

Still, when confronted by the clear and present danger of a grizzly bear, some people

insist on pushing their luck, imperiling themselves and the bear. A case in point:

At 5 p.m. on April 25, 1987, aspiring wildlife photographer Charles Gibbs, 40, and his wife, Glenda, were nearing the end of a dayhike in Glacier National Park, Montana. On a slope of Elk Mountain, they spotted a female grizzly with three cubs. Gibbs set off to photograph the bears while Glenda continued on to the car. It was the last time he was seen alive. The events leading to his death were pieced together from photographs from his camera. They show that Gibbs approached the grizzlies, followed them after they tried to move off, and was finally charged and mauled by the sow. His last photograph showed the bear at about 50 yards and moving toward him.

Every time someone has a run-in with a bear, it becomes an instant headline. Often lost in reports of maulings, however, is the long-term safety record of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, two places where the most attacks have occurred. Nowhere else in the world do such a large number of people come into regular contact with such a large number of grizzlies. Glacier went 57 years following its inception and handled more than 16 million visitors before there were grizzly-related deaths: a pair of young women killed on the night of August 13, 1967, in separate incidents. Ensuing media reports led the public to assume that campers were dying regularly in the park. But it would be nine years and almost 12 million visitors later before Glacier recorded another bear-related death. To date, nine people have been killed by bears in Glacier-nine deaths in an area that has played host to more than 55 million humans.

Yellowstone has recorded more bear-related injuries than any other national park. In the past 25 years, 34 people have been injured by grizzlies, and another 63 by black bears. Yet Yellowstone has recorded fewer bear-related deaths than Glacier (six since becoming a national park in 1872), despite the fact that it has been a park longer and seen far more visitors. Several of the Yellowstone deaths say more about questionable human behavior than the ferocity of bears: In 1907, a man prodded a cub with his umbrella to get it to perform for the camera, and in 1986 a photographer pursued a grizzly to within 40 yards hoping for the perfect picture.

In actuality, huckleberries, glacier lilies, and certain grasses have more to fear from grizzlies than the prudent camper, since the grizzly is essentially a vegetarian. Up to 90 percent of its diet is plants. While there are grizzly attacks on record in which predation may have played a part, it is the smaller, less feared black bear that seems more likely to view humans as prey.

Stephen Herrero, whose 1985 book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance has become the definitive study on the subject, says that of the human-black bear incidents he has studied, 90 percent show evidence that the bear was hunting. Most black bear attacks take place during the day, while grizzly incidents are usually at night. Black bear attacks are also more likely to take place outside national parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which hosts as many as 9 million visitors a year and contains nearly 600 black bears, has never had a bear-related fatality.

Still, black bears can be dangerous. “That’s a realization that has not hit home yet with much of the general public,” says Herrero. “But those who spend time in the bush have understood it for some time.”

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