Facing Grizzly Bear Fears

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

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

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.”

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.”

Trending on Backpacker