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In this episode of Out Alive we dive into a summer riddled with unsettling animal encounters worldwide. From cougars and bears on American soil to Orcas causing chaos off Portugal’s shores, one question lingers: Are animals growing weary of us? To shed light on these events, we invite renowned bear biologist, Dr. Tom Smith, and his former student-turned-wildlife biologist and podcast host, Wes Larson. Together, they unpack the intricacies of these animal-human confrontations, with a special emphasis on bears.
Louisa: If you take this past summer’s headlines concerning animal attacks, when you put them all together, they read like a series of unfortunate events. An 8 year old in Olympic National Park faced a cougar attack. In Arizona, a black bear took the life of a 66 year old man in a rare predatory event.
Across the ocean, off the coast of Portugal, orcas have targeted around 60 boats, causing three to sink. And in a shocking incident in Montana, an otter viciously attacked and injured a group of three women. Here at Outside, we can’t help but question, are the animals sick of us? We reached out to two wildlife biologists to find out, and since we love to talk about bears here at Out Alive, that’s mostly where this conversation took us.
Dr. Tom Smith is a world renowned bear biologist who studies several species of bear, as well as human-bear interactions. Tom is a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah. Wes Larson was Tom’s student once upon a time. He’s also an animal biologist and has worked as a wildlife technician at Yellowstone National Park and is the co-host of his podcast, Tooth and Claw, which is all about animal attacks.
There’s something primal about them. There’s something about them that we are endlessly fascinated about. So, the news cycle has been packed with stories of animal attacks over the recent months, and I can’t help but wonder, has there been an actual uptick in human animal conflicts, or is it a case of increased media attention?
Wes Larson: I don’t think there’s been a particularly high number of encounters or attacks this year. I do tend to agree with what you just said, that the news becomes more and more sensationalized as people are more connected to their social media and the news, and people want to have a story that sets them apart.
And everyone’s armed with a camera these days, too. So there are a lot more that are being recorded, which makes for a better story.
Louisa: Tom, you specifically study bear attacks. Have you seen a rise in bear aggression over the years?
Tom Smith: Let’s say that there is an actual increase. The key component to look at is why.
And the consistent thread in the large majority of these, and I’ve looked at all of them, that I’ve come across, I guess, it’s people doing wrong things in bear country. So, as long as people insist on going into bear country and paying no heed to any of the counsel of the biologists and others that work with them, then you’re going to have a continual string of these.
And so it’s not really an increase in animal attitudes towards people, it’s a lack of human attitudes towards animals.
Louisa: So you’re saying that animals aren’t getting sick of us, but when we encroach into their domain, we may pay the consequences.
Tom Smith: I think in all the research I’ve published, and I’ve had three separate papers on this topic that address this, the best predictor of the number of animal attacks is the number of people in animal territory. The more people, the more problems. It’s not like animals are getting more edgy or I think that’s what people go to. Are the grizzlies on a rampage this summer or something? No, there’s just more people in grizzly habitat doing the wrong thing.
Wes Larson: I think especially since the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot more people outside recreating a lot more people using the national parks, using state parks, using these areas where they’re at a higher chance of encountering one of these animals that might have a negative interaction with the person and. And I do think the news loves to spin those as the bears are on a rampage right now, or sharks are attacking people at a higher frequency because of these factors.
But when really it is just what Tom mentioned, that it’s just, there’s more people out there. And so you’re bound to have a few more encounters. Personally, I think it’s on us then to adjust for that, to prepare better for those kinds of encounters, rather than blame animals that have just simply been doing what they’ve always been doing.
Louisa: What are the implications of the media pinning blame on the wildlife and glossing over all the human decision making that leads to these attacks?
Tom Smith: So here’s the issue really for me. I see the headlines, we need fewer bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. No, what we need is fewer people doing wrong things in bear habitat.
That’s what we need. Because as long as people insist on doing the wrong things, all you need is one bear. Just one because eventually that one bear is going to run into those people and bears do what bears do, which is when like this last one killed with the Yellowstone.
Louisa: The incident Tom is referring to happened in July and involved a woman either hiking or trail running alone eight miles from the trailhead without firearms or bear spray. The grizzly just this past week was caught and euthanized.
Tom Smith: That was a tragic thing. But if you insist on running in bear country by yourself with no deterrence in the morning or late in the evening. Your time is gonna run out. And then what, what, what’s the press? Do they go after the bears? I’d like to see ’em go after these people, and it’s not out of disrespect, but it’s like, come on.
Louisa: I’ve noticed a few incidents where human attitudes towards animals actually have an impact on legislation. For example, representatives in Montana are pushing to remove bears from the endangered species list. But these politicians often use the media attention garnered after an attack to villainize bears and want the ability to reduce their numbers by what many conservationists fear is too drastic a number.
Wes Larson: This has been front-page news for the last couple of years about how there’s been this big push for delisting. And to be honest, that population has been recovered to a point where biologically speaking, they should be delisted and it should be heralded as a conservation success. This should be something we’re celebrating that we’ve restored that population to a number where they can be delisted and they can be managed by the States.
But a lot of the biologists that work with those populations of bears are really hesitant. to let that happen because of the viewpoints of these legislators. The amount of coexistence that’s already happening is incredible. I think Tom was recently in Italy. There was recently a fatality there. And that completely shook their entire program.
And he could talk more about that, I’m sure. That’s a country that doesn’t have the history that we have with living with predators. I do think that the fact that we have a number of incidents every year and that people still don’t want that animal completely removed from the ecosystem is really great.
I think that’s like the thing to look at that we’ve come so far in our view of predators. My thing is just, I think everyone involved needs to have a cool head. People need to take emotion out of these kinds of decisions. And we need to look at what’s best for the animal, what numbers we can have of that animal that then allow for people still to feel safe and still operate the ways that they want to operate on the landscape while giving that animal the room that it needs to exist.
Louisa: OK, so do you have a recommendation for a way forward where we’re coexisting with predator species while maintaining a healthy population for a balanced ecosystem?
Tom Smith: So, if we’re going to take our gloves off and fight fair here. In Italy, in the last 10 years, they’ve had four incidents, one of which was a fatality, the first one in modern times, and the other three, well, I’ve looked at those, two of them were, the guy fell down and hurt himself trying to run from the bear, and another one, it was similar, the person got slapped by a bear.
In all cases, without any question, people were doing inappropriate things in bear country. So, that’s that. Over the same time period in Italy, they’ve had 58 people killed by domestic dogs. Those dogs primarily were of the pitbull variety, 70 percent of them. Do I see people out on the streets with placards saying, stop dog breeding, stop dog ownership? No.
It goes right back to what Wes was saying, that there’s this inordinate fear of predators. On one hand, we’ve got these basically wolves living in our houses and they’re killing people. Oh, that’s okay, but you have one bear do one thing on the landscape to somebody who’s clearly not listening to the voices that are out there at the trailheads and everywhere else and we’re gonna go after bears. Like I said, let’s fight fair here.
I just don’t see it. And I think Wes has got a more majored tone than I do that’s good on him, but I don’t know. I’m just irritated with the whole thing. It’s one other one that I threw at him and he simply started sputtering about it. Here’s another statistic. 47,000 people last year were injured by shopping carts in the United States with several deaths and those were children.
Where are the picketers for that? How come we’re not getting rid of these torturous devices that are killing people? It’s ridiculous.
Wes Larson: Yeah, this is why I defer to Tom. He can always say it better than I can.
Tom Smith: Wes is good cop. I’m bad cop. That’s the difference. I’m getting old enough in my career, I don’t really care. But let’s be fair here. Really, for these poor bears that, sorry, they were here first.
Wes Larson: I’m from Montana. I grew up in Montana. Grizzly bears were always part of the landscape here. And in my mind, that’s one of the things that makes a place like Montana so special is that we have those animals on the landscape that you can’t simply go out and recreate without having to think about it, without having to plan and prepare for a potential encounter with a grizzly bear.
And that’s what makes it special. And in my mind it’s, if you want to then ranch in Montana, or recreate in Montana, or do whatever in Montana, that’s the cost. And it’s something that makes it beautiful, and it makes it special, and if that’s not something you’re willing to deal with, then live in Nebraska, or live in Colorado, or live somewhere where grizzlies aren’t on the landscape.
I do think it’s important to have them around.
Tom Smith: So maybe we have to have a law. You do not enter bear country without a deterrent. Just don’t. It’s a bad idea.
Louisa: By deterrent, Tom is referring to mainly bear spray. The same preparation applies to any backcountry scenario, whether you’re recreating in bear country or not. Awareness of who you’re sharing the land with can help keep you and the animals safe.
Tom Smith: My #1 thing is you have no business being in bear country without a way to tell a bear no. Personally, in bear country, I would outlaw trail running and mountain biking right now. They’re the largest groups involved in bear encounters on those trails.
Why? They’re moving fast, they’re moving silently, the bear doesn’t have a chance, and then they get injured and the news is all up in arms. It’s like not wearing a seatbelt, having a wreck, getting hurt, and then trying to sue somebody because you got hurt. Come on, you have to take some responsibility.
Wes Larson: Something Tom told me once that really sat with me was like, that he doesn’t like giving control to the animal. I really agree with that. And deterrent gives you that option of keeping that control and being able to dictate how that encounter ends. I just want to echo what he’s saying, that having a deterrent, having some way to keep control of the situation is really the way to go.
Louisa: This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates. Thanks so much to Tom Smith and Wes Larson for your time and perspectives. If you want to check out Wes’s podcast, Tooth and Claw, you can find a link on our website or wherever you get your podcast. You can also follow Wes on Instagram.
Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. Learn about all the benefits of membership by visiting outsideonline.com/podplus. We’ll be back in two weeks with another survival story.