Rangers and Bear Researchers Share Their Best Grizzly Encounters

While thousands of people flock to U.S. national parks each year in hopes of seeing a bear, spotting one out in its element is just another day in the office for some employees.
By Stephanie Butzer ,

Michael Whyte

The Biologist

There's a reason that Yellowstone is so linked with bears in the public imagination. Grizzlies are an icon in the park, along with Old Faithful, beautiful mountains and herds of bison.

Kerry Gunther has worked as a bear management biologist there for 25 years. The Chicago native grew up watching documentaries on the park and its grizzly population.

“It just seemed like an exciting outdoor career,” he said.

On a sunny day of July 2009, Gunther headed out the door for a 11-mile hike. The day was hot, and there was little tree cover as he carried his pack through an open valley and up a mountain. Partway up the trail, Gunther spotted a spring about 50 yards off the path, and decided to top up. He dropped his pack and headed toward it.

“I was filtering water when I heard a noise and looked up,” he said.A grizzly bear, just 10 yards away, had come to the spring for a drink as well. In that instant, Gunther realized he had left his bear spray in its holster on the hip belt of his pack. 

“I could look into the bear’s eyes and I could feel the bear looking into my eyes,” he said. Fortunately, the bruin turned and ran.

Gunther says today that he took two important lessons from that encounter: One, Grizzly bears aren’t really as dangerous as pop culture makes them out to be. Two, always keep your bear spray at hand.

The Ecology Student

If you want a sure-fire way to glimpse a brown bear, Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska has one of the densest concentrations of them in the world. Located at the base of the Alaskan Peninsula, roughly 250 miles from Anchorage, bruins flock to the preserve's streams to gorge on the salmon that choke it during their annual migration from the sea.

Washington State University PhD candidate Joy Erlenbach has spent four summers in Katmai studying bear ecology, including about 65 days a year camping among them behind an electric fence. And while she and other researchers are prepared for bear encounters (she carries bear spray as well as a firearm), they don't happen often.

A few years ago, Erlenbach and one of her partners were walking on the sandy intertidal area in Katmai's Hallo Bay, conducting observations on local grizzlies. A few hundred yards away, a mother bear sniffed around tall grasses at the edge of the beach as her two rambunctious yearlings wandered into another section of tall grass and began to play.

Erlenbach guesses that the mother bear, who ran back out onto the beach moments later, realized she didn’t know where her cubs were.

“We're on this wide open intertidal place, which is just flat sand, and there's nothing else around so we stick out like a sore thumb,” she said. “She sees us and she can’t find her cubs, so she started charging at us.”

The bear was close enough that Erlenbach had started to pull the trigger on her bear spray, when the cubs popped out of the grasses. When the mother spotted them, she stopped charging, turned around, and walked to her offspring.

Erlenbach notes that encounters that escalate that far are rare indeed.

“Out of all of the interactions I’ve had with them, yes, some have been scary, but so many have been so forgiving,” she said. 

Ehrlenbach recalls one in particular, which occurred in July 2016. She and a research partner went to the intertidal area of Katmai, where bears regularly hunt for clams when the tide goes out. They spotted a cub they had been studying—Ehrlenbach describes her as "sassy" and "dorky"—on the sand. Suddenly, a wolf trotted up to the young bruin.

“It just walked up to her and she looked at it," remembers Ehrlenbach. "I don’t remember who started it first, but they, I swear to God, played tag. No joke.”

The wolf would chase the bear cub, stop when he got close and wait for her to turn around, and then he’d run away as she trotted after him. The game went on for about five minutes.

“I was out there thinking, ‘No way, this can’t be happening. This isn’t true. This doesn’t really happen,’” she said. “But I was witnessing it. I have photos and video.”

The Ranger

Further inland is Brooks Camp, Katmai's most famous zone. The area draws tourists, who come to photograph the bears that fish for salmon in the cascading Brooks River. During the summer months, it's also ranger Andrew LaValle's home.

Near the start of the season in 2017, which falls around early June, the rangers learned that a mother bear had abandoned her cubs and was re-entering estrus, a natural progression after the cubs are old enough to be on their own. She was ready to mate again and the boars, or male bears, in the area could smell it.

“I’m coming down the trail going to the falls platform, and all of a sudden, I see this large boar just running down the trail in my direction,” LaValle said.

He would later learn the male was spotted pursuing the female in estrus.

“It a unique site to see, but at the time was a little hair-raising,” he said. “He may have looked at me slightly as he passed by, but he had somewhere he wanted to go. That’s pretty common here in Brooks Camp.”

LaValle said he suspected the bear was after something other than him since it had started running so far up the trail.

“Under those circumstances, you can’t really do much besides step off the trail an adequate distance into the brush and let that bear just go on by,” he said.

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