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Q: Why all the fuss about bears in every issue of the magazine? You make it sound like there are constant bear attacks. How many bear attacks are there annually in the USA, and how are they distributed across the regions?—Larry Conley, via email
A: Face it, Larry: People love me. They always have, and they always will—in a recent homepage poll, 40 percent of respondents said they most want to see me in the wild (wolves came in second with 34 percent, and cougars came in third with 26 percent. Losers.). Big ups to Teddy Roosevelt, who helped enshrine me in plush, and your kids will love me forever for it.
This is of course when they’re not terrified of me (I also top the list of outdoor phobias). Both of these are pretty compelling reasons to ensure I get covered a whole lot. But believe it or not, our editors can show restraint, as when they elected not to use a particularly terrifying shot of me for our phobias issue. (There’s not enough peanut butter in the world to make me forgive those fools for that).
It’s pretty hard to compile bear attacks statistics on the whole, and my buddies usually don’t like to brag about it, so let’s take a look at fatal bear attacks, which are better covered because they almost always make the news and can be tracked by experts like Stephen Herrero and Tom Smith.
In the 2000s, there have been 27 fatal incidences so far in North America, resulting in 29 deaths. 15 were in Canada, three were in Alaska, two were in Tennessee, and single fatal attacks happened in New York, New Mexico, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Utah and Montana. 17 of those attacks were perpetrated by black bears, and 10 by grizzlies.
What can we learn from this, other than don’t go to Canada (kidding!)? In truth, you don’t have much to fear: That averages to just under 3 fatalities a year, when millions of people go into the backcountry or live near bear habitat. 26 people get killed by dogs every year, and 90 people are killed every year by lightning.
I can throw statistics at you all day about how getting killed by me is less likely than getting struck by lightning, but it wouldn’t matter. I’m an enduring myth as old as humanity itself, with deep cultural ties that probably come from when we used to compete directly in forests and caves. That’s never going to cease capturing your imagination, and it’s a good thing, too—otherwise I wouldn’t have a job.
The only thing that even comes close is a shark. Thank Ursa Major they don’t live in Yellowstone or Glacier.