Size matters

bird bear

A Bird Ridge black bear/Andy Baker photo


Patrick “Jack” Cooper was a 16-year-old boy killed by a predatory black bear, and now some want to blame him for his own death.


There is little doubt running from the bear was a mistake. Turning your back on a predator is invariably a bad thing. What predators desire is to approach from behind so their prey cannot fight back.

In this case, however, it is worth asking a simple question: Would it have made any difference if young Cooper had stood his ground?

Maybe, and then again probably not.

“Jack was very young for his age,” said the mother of one of his friends, and he was slight. Physically, he wasn’t any more of a challenge for your average Alaska black bear than geologist Cynthia Dusel-Bacon.

Mentally and emotionally, Dusel-Bacon was way ahead if for no other reason that she was almost twice as old when attacked by the black bear that basically chewed off one of her arms and most of the other. She was lucky to live.

A radio and the quick response of a helicopter saved her life. Cooper had a smart phone, the modern equivalent of Dusel-Bacon’s radio, but the response to Bird Ridge in Chugach State Park just outside of Anchorage was slower, and there is the possibility he might have died in a fall while being chased and before the bear got to his body.

Whatever the case, there is no indication he ever stood up to the bear.

Dusel-Bacon did; it didn’t matter.

As Canadian scientist Stephen Hererro, the authority on bear attacks, would later write, “In 99 percent of such encounters, she probably would have been successful.”

Maybe, and then again maybe not because in the animal kingdom size matters, and Dusel-Bacon, like Cooper, was no Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is a reason bears go after moose calves instead of full-grown moose.

A demonstration of size

Some tourists in a bear encounter in Denali National Park and Preserve unknowingly put on a demonstration of the value of size last summer.

They were followed – some might say chased – by a young grizzly near the Savage River. Park visitor Betty Snyder caught on film what happened next.

Park rangers on one bank of the river, seeing the disaster brewing on the other side of the river, started yelling instructions to the tourists:

Stop running. Get together in a group. Put your hands over your head. And make yourselves look big.

The people did as they were told. The bear, which had been following them as they fled, stopped.

They turned to face him and yelled. That visibly startled the animal. It backed off and eventually slunk away. You can view the entire photo sequence here: denali-hikers-escape-bear.

Snyder credited rangers with saving two different groups of hikers while she was stopped along the Savage.

“It was amazing how the stand-tall procedure actually worked for these hikers,” she emailed. “Thanks to the rangers calling out instructions to them.”

Whether it was the stand-tall technique or the grouping together and shouting is, however, open to debate. Scientist Tom Smith at Brigham Young University in Utah, a man who has been studying bears for decades in Alaska, has been collecting data on this sort of thing for a new paper on human responses to bears, and he has found no indication that putting your arms above your head makes any difference.

In fact, he said, if you are alone and prepared to defend yourself with pepper spray or a gun, it is probably a bad idea to put your hands above your head. Instead, get ready to use your defensive weapon just in case it becomes necessary.

The data, however, leaves no doubt that there is safety in numbers, he added. A group of people clustered togeher looks like a whole lot of trouble to a bear, because size matters.


Five-foot, three-inch Marti Miller, a colleague of Dusel-Bacon’s at the U.S. Geological Survey, probably knows this as well as anyone. Her central Alaska black bear encounter was even more troubling than that of her friend and co-worker.

Miller was stalked by a black bear.

“I’ll never forget the look in that bear’s eyes,” she said in a telephone interview. All alone in the field, she tried to maneuver away from the animal. It followed her as she edged toward higher ground and then circled around to get behind her to attack, just as with Dusel-Bacon.

Only there was a fatal difference for the bear. Miller was armed. After the horrific attack that cost Dusel-Bacon her arms, the USGS began providing firearms and bear training to its field geologists.

When Miller turned to find the bear about to grab her, she shot and killed it. The death of Cooper, she said, brought back troubling memories of that incident. But for the gun, she said, she could have been him.

Miller had a weapon and knew how to use it. Cooper had no weapon. He met the wrong bear in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was a perfectly sized target for a predatory black bear.

“Our impression from our data is that young and older people may be more vulnerable to fatal attack because they may be perceived as less threatening and may be less able to resist serious attack,” Herrero, Smith and two co-authors concluded in a 2011 study on “Fatal Attacks by American Black Bear on People: 1900-2009.”

There was also this:

“Potentially predatory approaches are typically silent and may include stalking or other following, followed by a fast rush leading to contact. We know of incidents where a black bear behaved as if it were considering on carrying out a predatory attack and was deterred by people’s aggressive actions such as shouting, or hitting with rocks, fists or sticks. Once predatory behavior is initiated, it may be persist for hours unless it is deterred.

“Such bears appear to be strongly motivated, as if a switch had been thrown.”

Once the Bird Ridge bear locked its sights on young Cooper, Smith said in a Thursday interview, the die was likely cast. There was only one way the bear was going to be deterred, and that was for someone to drive it off.

That Cooper was not equipped, physically or emotionally to do that, is not his fault. It is not easy to stand up to a bear. Take my word for it. I have done it successfully several times, and once unsuccessfully. The latter resulted in a claw in the face and then the shooting of a grizzly that had my leg in its mouth.

Compared to Cooper, I was bigger, stronger, older, armed and lucky. He was smaller, weaker, younger, unarmed and unlucky. These are the differences between life and death in these situations.

The real world

Thankfully, most people will never be attacked by a bear, let alone a predatory black bear. Bears that attack people are rare, very rare. The predatory black bear is a tiny subset of those rare bears.

“The risk of fatal black bear attacks on people in our study area (North America) was extremely low,” the authors of the fatal attacks paper wrote. “Each year, millions of interactions between people and black bears occur without any injury to a person although by two years of age most black bears have the physical capacity to kill a person.”

Smith is now in the middle of writing a paper on bear attacks solely in Alaska. He has cataloged 1,447 dangerous confrontations between humans and black, grizzly and polar bears. In those encounters, there were 332 injuries and 60 deaths. Smith concedes there were likely hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of close calls with bears on which he has no data because the incidents were never reported.

Of the 1,447 close encounters, he said, 1,141 involved situations in which a bear actually made contact with a person. The 332 injuries came from those 1,141 attacks. Thus, if a bear should make contact with you – something unlikely to begin with – there is a 70 percent chance you will escape uninjured.

The chance the bear will kill you is 1 in 19. That leaves a 95 percent chance you will survive the attack. Most of us, were we to walk into a doctor’s office today to discover we had cancer, would happily take a diagnosis offering a 95 percent chance of survival.

Bear are scary animals, and the more time you spend in the wild or semi-wild lands of Alaska, the more chance you have of encountering them. But they are not as dangerous as bees and wasps.

On average, 44 people die every year in the U.S. from allergic reactions after being stung by hornets, bees or wasps, according to a study appearing in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. People who know they are allergic, carry an EpiPen with them almost everywhere so that if they are stung they can inject a drug (epinephrine) that immediately reverses the symptoms of the life-threatening reactions to the sting.


Smith suggests people heading into bear-filled areas of Alaska, or bear-filled anywhere in the Lower 48, think about bear spray or a firearm in the same way, as a simple, precautionary protection.

Smith admits to a preference for bear spray because it requires less skill to use than a firearm and is lighter, but he has no reservations about guns. If you are good with one, if you can perform with it under pressure, if you feel confident of hitting a moving target, and if you don’t mind hauling around the extra weight, take it.

Otherwise, consider the fact a can of bear spray weighs only 11 ounces and any idiot can use it without hurting themselves or anyone else while a short-barreled Remington 870 pump shotgun –  among the better bear stoppers for most people – weighs seven and a half pounds, and even the lightest, short-barreled .454-caliber Casull handgun weighs four-times as much as the bear spray.  Not to mention that it requires a lot more skill to use, plus some regular practice.

Or you could just make do with a stick.

That was the weapon of choice for the late Stan Price who lived among the grizzlies in a cabin at Pack Creek in the Admiralty Island National Monument for 33 years. Over time, he swatted more than a few bears on the nose.

That technique works fine right up until the time it doesn’t. Still, if you lack any other weapon, take what you can find – especially around black bears.

“I think that predatory black bears might be more common than most people think,” Miller said. Smith conceded she could be right. Black bears are hunted almost everywhere in North America these days, and hunters tend to weed out the bold and aggressive bears.

That alone might explain why there are fewer black bear attacks in areas where the bears are regularly hunted.

“With far less hunting pressure, more bold males survive,” the authors of fatal attacks wrote. “Males take more risks to feed and fatten to be able to compete with other males to breed. We see predation on a person being a rare, high-risk activity with a potentially high food reward, in which a bear might ingest much quality food by feeding on a person, but also will probably be killed by other humans.”

The Bird Ridge bear that killed Cooper was a 180-pound male that fit this description, and in the end the bear was shot and killed by humans.  Three other bears died in the gunfire as collateral damage. The tragedy is that Cooper died before the bear-shootings happened.












12 replies »

  1. ok everybody. there’s no doubt problems with the data set. but it is also the data available, and it does provides a sort of “worst-case” maker in the sense that “bears are no more dangerous than X,” and that X looks pretty non-dangerous in terms of all the other risks out there. personally, i’d expect the actual danger is magnitudes of order less than X. people have bear encounters everyday all across the country that end with the people going one way and the bear the other. statistically, you have to be a.) very unlucky; or b.) spending huge amounts of time in country with significant bear densities to have an issue with a bear. it would be nice if the data was better. i’ve talked to dozens if not hundreds of people who’ve run from bears without being mauled. i think the running data is especially bad. it might be that with the rare exception of a truly predatory bear, running isn’t any worse than standing. one could even make an argument based purely on bear behavior that running from a grizzly sow with cubs might be a good idea because the farther you get from the cubs the less threat you pose for the sow. when wolves test sows with cubs hoping to get one of the cubs but then decide to run away, the sow doesn’t go chasing them. she stays with the cubs to protect them. that said, bears can be dangerous as i know too well from personal experience.

  2. Pete: the last is easy to answer, because those percentages come from the incidents for which Smith has data on bears making contact. as to the rest, i think Smith would totally agree with you. there are probably a ton of encounters and some shootings (i know of several myself) of which only friends or family learn. but those would only serve to show there is even LESS danger than cited by those percentages.

    • I agree. A gap of that magnitude (thousands of unreported incidents) in his relatively small dataset could, in theory, mean your chance of escaping uninjured is 99% not 70%. It’s still unclear to me how he learned about incidents where no one was injured or killed.

      • well, we had a couple over the weekend with a vague trooper report of an attack in Hope in which someone got pulled out of a tree and drove himself to the hospital, and another from EAFB about a cyclist in confrontation. some make the news; some don’t. some do get reported to some authority – troopers, USFS, NPS, Army, Air Force, BLM – even if relatively minor.

  3. Be interesting to hear more about Smith’s data collection techniques. 1,447 “dangerous confrontations” (whatever that means) resulting in approximately 400 injuries/deaths. That leaves about a thousand confrontations where no one was injured or killed. Where/how did Smith learn about these confrontations? Do people report confrontations if no one is injured or killed? Where would one report such a thing? And why? I bet a simple survey of the readers of Craig Medred News would reveal dozens/hundreds/thousands of unreported bear encounters that didn’t make his dataset. So where did he get his numbers and why are you relying on them to make statements like “there is a 70% chance you will escape uninjured” and “a 95% chance you will survive”?

    • Given the context, I think it’s pretty clear the percentage statements implicitly reference the encounters that were counted.

      As to the methodology used to gather them? In my experience with these kind of studies it’s mostly a literature review, some are documented in official reports. Some published in various books (like Herrero and Kaniut). Some will be reported in local news, but maybe not make the Anchorage press’s but is available online via googling or archived in microfiche at the UA libraries. Going back to google, you can search and get blog and social media hits. Some might even be word of mouth.

      The trick is verifying the details. If you have names, you can sometimes follow up. It isn’t “double-blind, controlled laboratory scientific method,” but it’s pretty common in the softer sciences.

      • Thanks for sharing your experience (whatever that might be). As a university professor with a Ph.D., I know how to collect data, but I appreciate your tips. I’m also afraid you’re missing the point. I’m talking about encounters where no one is injured like the one I had with a black bear this past Saturday while biking on the Upper Skilak campground road. I didn’t tell anyone about it (until now) because nothing happened other than me yelling at the bear and the bear running into the woods. So it’s not going to show up in any of your sources. Get it? The point is lots of people have lots of uneventful encounters with bears that nobody – not even google – knows about. Getting accurate numbers on bear encounters when things turn out okay for both humans and bears is likely impossible.

      • Apparently your PhD (in whatever field it might be) came with the usual amount of arrogance. I’m sure your students appreciate it. I know the profs I respected tended to not be credential strokers nor supercilious jerks.

      • I believe that you’ve missed his point again, mathew! For whatever reason, you’ve taken his reply somewhat personal and to someone else it didn’t seem arrogant, at all.
        To suggest it implicitly referenced the counted encounters clearly doesn’t help IMO and even if it were, counted by whom??

      • The appeal to (self) authority was puerile. Not sure how the “whatever that may be” and “but I appreciate your tips” can be taken as anything but unnecessary, not to mention unnecessarily snide, digs. In any event, I don’t take anything people say online personally, rather I disdain people who feel the need to try to establish rhetorical dominance by whipping out their credentials rather than directly addressing their point.

        As to that point, per the article Smith accounted for the missing data,”Smith concedes there were likely hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of close calls with bears on which he has no data because the incidents were never reported.” so Snow bringing it up as a critique is redundant at best. Since that missing data was accounted for, the percentages are valid for the data which he collected. Which is what I stated.

        Now, as to the methodology of the data Smith did collect, if Snow didn’t want a (possible) answer, why did he ask the question? I guess it could have been rhetorical, but, again, if methodological concerns were part of his critique, why would it have been?

        His response to me could have been made much more politely, and would have been taken as such. I’m no psychologist, but apparently he views people attempting to be helpful as some kind of assault on his self-image as a credentialed “smart person” which requires a dominance display in return.

      • Well mathew, I’m clearly not going to change your mind-so go ahead and keep that chip on your shoulder.
        Frankly, it really makes no sense to even mention those statistics when its also acknowledged that there are most likely thousands or tens of thousands of encounters unreported for no injuries. What’s the point of suggesting such when it really has no realistic meaning? Whether/not Smith meant it implicitly its by itself a complete garbage statistic IMO.

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