Bears have killed people. That is an indisputable fact. “The average is about one a year,” says Herrero. Since record keeping began in 1906, there is documented evidence of at least 49 grizzly-related deaths in North America, and 33 deaths attributed to black bears. That’s a total of 82 deaths in 88 years, which is close to the number of people annually killed by lightning.
So how afraid should backcountry hikers be while in bear country? “I don’t think they should have much fear at all,” says Herrero. “They should have concern and use caution. Fear is an immobilizing force and can cause a person to do the wrong thing at a time when doing the wrong thing could prove fatal. So arm yourself with knowledge and foresight, with concern and respect.”
Most run-ins, says Herrero, fall into two categories: sudden encounters and food-related incidents. Like most wild animals, grizzlies seem to have a critical distance in which they feel comfortable. When that space is violated, they become defensive. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. A bear feeding or caught in the open where it feels exposed may not tolerate a close approach, whereas a bear hidden by thick vegetation may let you walk right past. A bear that has become somewhat habituated to people may be less spooked by humans. Critical distance is most important when sows with cubs are involved. Grizzlies protect their young ferociously and do not tolerate close encounters. More than 70 percent of the sudden-encounter incidents studied by Herrero involved sows and cubs.
To avoid a surprise encounter, most experts suggest that you travel alertly, using your senses to both detect and spot bears from as great a distance as possible. Some experts suggest making noise-talking loudly, clapping hands, singing, or wearing “bear bells,” although this last item is somewhat controversial-not for its effectiveness in shooing bears, but in the way it affects the wilderness experience. Group travel is also a good idea, probably because the inevitable chatter and noise scares bears away. Each of the last four grizzly-related deaths in Glacier have involved solo hikers, as have several attacks in Yellowstone. Herrero’s research turned up no cases of attacks on parties of six or more.
Habituation to humans and human food is another factor that puts bears and backcountry visitors at risk. Studies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park show that panhandling black bears have a life span up to 50 percent shorter than bears in the wild, their days cut short by poachers luring them with food, rangers taking action when humans are at risk, or by eating indigestible items. Habituation also puts people at risk. At least 10 grizzly-related deaths in national parks, including Glacier’s famous “night of the grizzlies” deaths, involved bears habituated to human food.
Fortunately, keeping bears away from human food is perhaps the easiest factor to control in bear safety. Bear-proof garbage cans, dump closings, and regulations against feeding bears have had a major impact on bear behavior. In Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Denali national parks, all backcountry campers are required to carry bear-proof food canisters.
At King’s Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite national parks in California the canisters are strongly recommended. “It used to be garbage and food-related incidents that we worried about the most,” says Herrero, “but these have fallen off, while sudden encounters have remained constant.”
The fact that bears and humans can co-exist when the two-leggeds possess the proper knowledge and respect is illustrated at Alaska’s McNeil River Sanctuary. There, under a strict permit system and clearly prescribed regulations, 295 people a year come in extremely close contact with as many as 125 grizzlies feeding on the river’s salmon. It’s one of the greatest wildlife-human gatherings on earth, and since the permit system began in 1973, no humans or bears have been killed.
“Bears do not have a sinister personality,” says biologist Derek Stonorov of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, who has observed for years the peaceable interaction of bears and people at McNeil River. “They are not out to get somebody. They are not even particularly aggressive. It is difficult for them not to move away from people or other bears. If we look at them with out preconceived notions, they are not at all a fearsome creature.”