The July 6th grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone National Park saddened me deeply, and struck a chord. My heart goes out to the family of the gentleman who lost his life, and especially to his wife – I can not imagine the sorrow that this incident has caused. I was in Yellowstone National Park just 2 weeks before the attack, meeting with biologists and mangers about grizzly bear management in the area, and across their remaining lower 48 range. Images of the park, and it’s bears were fresh in my mind when I heard the shocking news from Yellowstone. It was also the day I departed to guide a brown bear viewing expedition with four guests for a week on the Alaska Peninsula. It was a sobering topic to launch the experience, but also an opportunity to talk about safety with my excited travel partners from California and Switzerland.
One of the key elements of staying safe in bear country is prevention. Bears don’t like to be surprised – especially grizzly bears that may be defending cubs or a prized food cache. It goes without saying that hiking in groups increases safety – making noise reduces the likelihood of an unwanted confrontation with a defensive bear. Smaller groups have to be very conscious of making noise – especially when the wind is in your face (the bear ahead can’t smell you), or when in thick brush, approaching blind bends in the trail, or hill rises, or when hiking alongside a noisy creek. I’m often the loudest guy on the trail – belting out a “Hey bear!” every so often politely warns a bear of your approach and enables them to take diversionary action – which they most often do. Sometimes it takes people a while to overcome their self-conscious squirms when shouting out to bears, but believe me, it’s worth getting over. If the warning shouts fail to work and you surprise a bear that enters a “defensive” mode, try to remain calm, talking in a firm voice that helps the bear to identify you as a human. And NEVER run – you may trigger a bear’s innate pursuit response, and there is no way to outrun a bear that can top 35 miles per hour.
Here is an excerpt from the National Park Service news release following the Yellowstone attack:
The couple was hiking west back toward their vehicle. At approximately 11:00 a.m., at a point about a mile and a half from the trailhead, they walked out of a forested area into an open meadow. It appears that the couple spotted a bear approximately 100 yards away and then began walking away from the bear. When they turned around to look, they reportedly saw the female grizzly running down the trail at them. The couple began running, but the bear caught up with them, attacking Mr. Matayoshi. The bear then went over to Mrs. Matayoshi, who had fallen to the ground nearby. The bear bit her daypack, lifting her from the ground and then dropping her. She remained still and the bear left the area.
Playing dead probably saved Mrs Matayoshi’s life. Female grizzly bears can be very aggressive when defending their cubs. I have seen mother bears face off, and even chase away males that are more than double their size. But remember – all bears are different. They are exceptionally intelligent mammals, which much room for individual personalities. I always say that any two bears are as different as any two people. There are lovers, and there are fighters, and some bears are far more tolerant of people than others. Just over a week ago I encountered two brown bears on the coast of Alaska – both of them busy grazing on a sedge meadow together. From 100 yards away they heard me call – one of them immediately stood up, then tore off at full speed into the forest 200 yards away, clearly freaked out by our presence. The other? He barely gave us a glance between mouthfuls, calmly continuing to graze, unphased by our presence. In fact he looked bemused at his pal who by now was flattening saplings as he high-tailed it away from us. One of these bears was far more used to seeing humans than the other and was a clear reminder of their propensity for individual personalities born of life experience.
More from the Yellowstone NPS press release:
The initial investigation suggests the sow grizzly acted in a purely defensive nature to protect her cubs. This female bear is not tagged or collared, and does not apparently have a history of aggression or human interaction. Typically, the National Park Service does not trap, relocate, or kill a bear under those circumstances. A Board of Review which will include interagency experts will be convened to review the incident. Bear attacks are extremely rare. No one was hurt by a bear in Yellowstone in 2010. This is the first time a human has been killed by a bear in the park since 1986. Park visitors are encouraged to stay on designated trails, hike in groups of three or more people, and be alert for bears and make noise in blind spots. Visitors are also encouraged to consider carrying bear pepper spray, which has been shown to be highly successful in stopping aggressive behavior in bears. The Matayoshis were not carrying pepper spray.
Whenever I am in bear country, I carry bear spray. And so does every other bear expert I know. It works, and is far more effective than a firearm when facing off a charging bear. Buy the right stuff – not the kind used for deterring humans – and learn how to use it. For more information, go here.
Being in the right state of mind helps too – my partner Bren and I took several hikes on our Yellowstone trip. On one of them our goal was to take in the views of the Lamar Valley by climbing along Specimen Ridge. But just a mile along the trail I spotted someone bush-whacking below the ridge ahead of us. I had a hunch they were avoiding a bear encounter – why else would he be taking the tough route? We continued to climb, knowing our paths would soon cross with the hiker. Sure enough, the first adrenaline-pumped words out of his mouth as we approached were “I suggest you proceed with extreme caution”. He had encountered a grizzly bear on the ridge and took a wide detour to avoid it, which proved quite difficult as the bear was intent on heading in the same direction. It was a windy day – not ideal in bear country – bears tend to become agitated when wind affects their ability to smell with those legendary noses. I decided that caution should prevail and we saved the hike for another day, leaving the ridge to the grizzly bear. There’s plenty of room for everyone in Yellowstone, and it’s good to begin a hike open to the idea of turning back when nature throws a curveball. In fact, on the way out, I convinced another couple to do the same thing. Bren and I returned to Specimen Ridge the next day and had a glorious hike, but I was still the noisiest guy on the trail.
Bear attacks do happen, but far less frequently that myth, folklore, and media might have you believe. Kerry Gunther from Yellowstone National Park helps to keep things in perspective when he says that there’s about a 1-in-3 million chance of being attacked by a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park. There are around 650 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and around 3 million annual visitors – perhaps the most surprising thing is that attacks don’t occur more often.
Our willingness to accept the grizzly bear as an iconic representative of the wild will become the truest test of human nature and our ability to coexist with powerful carnivores in a world that provides less and less space for them to survive. I hope that we are able to find a way. My deepest sympathies to the Matayoshi family. Our thoughts are with you.
Chris Morgan, MS Ecology
Host and Narrator PBS Nature ‘Bears of the Last Frontier’
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