Bearly ignorant bliss

Rob Foster Black Bear

A predatory black bear/Rob Foster photo


Alaska’s mainstream media has dialed up the perfect solution to the fear gripping the 49th state in the wake of two extremely rare, fatal bear attacks in two days in June: Ignorance.


“It’s good to be prepared, but training to people to deal with bear incidents creates fear,” wrote an Alaska Dispatch News columnist, who blamed other writers plus local, state and federal officials for this fear.

“Outdoor writers and land managers also increase fear of bears by teaching preparedness,” he concluded.

It was tempting to just make a joke of such nonsense and draft a “Top 10” list of things we should stop teaching. At first it started with boating safety, but….

Thirty-five-thousand to 40,000 people die in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. every year.  More than 75 of them died in accidents on Alaska roadways last year. We could save a lot of lives if we stopped teaching people to drive.

Nobody died in motor vehicle accidents when were all living in caves thousands of years ago blissfully ignorant of both the wheel and the internal combustion engine.

One can go on in this vein at length. It’s rather fun to entertain the many ways in which stifling the flow of information might make life better. Think about how much calmer the country would be today if no one had taught President Donald Trump to use Twitter.

But there are bigger issues here – issues that go to the failing belief in the importance and value of journalism.

Altered landscape

To give so much importance to the words of “outdoor writers and land managers” displays that mainstream journalistic arrogance that journalists control or should control the public discussion.

At the same time, it wholly ignores the changing information landscape in this the age of Facebook,  Instragram,  Twitter, Nextdoor and more.

For better or worse, the world has changed. Both journalists and government have lost some of their control of information, though the latter now sometimes controls more than its share given that the former has largely taken to covering the news by rewriting government handouts.

And journalists seem generally good with that. The PR folks are their friends.

President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex threatening American democracy in the 1960s. Someone ought to start getting nervous about a ‘crat-journo complex threatening democracy today.

Both entities have a bad tendency to think they know better what is good for the American public than Joe and Jane Citizen. Both have a bad tendency to decide they should control information to protect the masses from themselves.

Neither is big on putting all the information out there to allow people to sort things out on their own.

Many are members of that club able to conclude that “training to people to deal with bear incidents creates fear.” The poor, unwashed masses will feel better if it they just don’t know. The only odd part of the observation was that “land managers” suffered some blame.

Maybe it was to encourage the bureaucrats to be even more tight-lipped about bear maulings and deaths, and to just stop talking about the whole damn subject of bears in the general because it scares people.

The bureaucrats have done pretty well in the latter department so far.

What we know

There have been a handful of maulings in recent weeks, two deaths, and not all that much is known about the specifics of what happened in any of these cases. In one, a grizzly attack on three young adults and a juvenile at Eagle River, the Anchorage Police Department ignored the Alaska public records law and refused to release even the names of the individuals who called authorities to come save them. The public records law provides no exemption for victims of bear attacks. 

More is known about the two deadly encounters with rare, predatory black bears, but not because state officials have been all that much help. Information has come largely from on-the-scene witnesses in the case of the black bear attack on Bird Ridge southeast of Anchorage and from the employer of one of the women killed near the Pogo Mine in central Alaska.

It’s hard for anyone to learn much of anything useful from bear encounters without the best information being made available, and the best information isn’t available.

Were this 20 years ago, or maybe even 10, the limited information state agencies have offered as to what happened might meet the goal of keeping people in the dark to avoid spreading fear.

But this is not 2007, let alone 1997. This is 2017.

When a news vacuum is created now by lack of official information or tightly controlled official information, speculation moves in to fill the void. The issue doesn’t go away. It morphs and spreads, and often in the process misinformation sprouts.

“Black bear kills two runners in Alaska,” a gun forum reports. “Alaska teen chased and killed by bear during running race,” says the BBC, an English news organization on the other side of the planet. “Two Rare Black Bear Attacks Show Rise in Conflict With People,” National Geographic speculates.

Google “bear kill Alaska runners,” and you will get dozens and dozens of links to all kinds of things.

There is a lot of speculation, and little that can be learned because so little is publicly known. That said, at the end of the NatGeo story Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh is quoted advising people not to run from a black bear because “that can trigger the predator prey reflex. Pick up a stick and or rock and fight.”

Whether running triggers any reflex is debatable, but what it does do is expose your back to an animal that wants to attack from behind. Marsh deserves a shout out. He’s been almost alone in at least trying to turn these tragic accidents into teaching moments that could help others.

Times have changed

Two bear attacks themselves show nothing. The sample size is too small. The two attacks could be, and likely are, a random statistical accident.

But there is a trend here even if National Geo failed to note it. There has been a documented rise in black bear attacks in North America since 1960.

Across the continent, there has been a little over one fatality per year since then, according to a 2011 study, “Fatal attacks by American black bear on people: 1960-2009.” Most of the increase has come in Canada, though no one knows why.

Another study, this one published in 2016, points to increased predatory attacks in both North America and Europe due not only to black bears, but to grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, and cougars. The study adds this:

“About half of the well-documented reported attacks have involved risk-enhancing human behaviours, the most common of which is leaving children unattended.”

“Remarkably, risk-enhancing human behaviour has been involved in at least half of the well-documented attacks, 47.6 percent,” wrote Vincenzo Penteriani and 16 co-authors in the study titled “Human behavior can trigger large carnivore attacks in developed countries.”

“From highest to lowest, the five most common human behaviours occurring at the time of an attack were (a) parents leaving children unattended, (b) walking an unleashed dog, (c) searching for a wounded large carnivore during hunting, (d) engaging in outdoor activities at twilight/night and (e) approaching a female with young. These are clearly risk-enhancing behaviours when sharing the landscape with large carnivores.”

Neither mountain biking nor running – which have been discussed as heightening dangers in Alaska of late – pop up in the data, though there is no doubt that both of those activities increase the odds of a surprise encounter with a bear at close range.

Neither of the latest Alaska deaths, however, involve running, despite suggestions to the contrary.

In the case of 16-year-old Patrick “Jack” Cooper, he had finished a mountain-running race that involves more speeding hiking than running and was hiking back down Bird Ridge only 25 miles from downtown Anchorage when approached by a black bear. It appears he did, at that point, take off running, which was a mistake.

But by then a predatory attack was already in motion.

In the other case, 27-year-old Erin Johnson was one of two environmental researchers surprised and attacked by a black bear. 

Both cases, given what is known so far, do offer information on preparedness that could help save someone else.  Cooper, despite his small size, would have had a better chance if he’d tried to stand up to the bear either with a stick or by throwing rocks. Johnson’s only hope would appear to have been to spot the bear before it attacked and then go it with her bear spray.

Both of those responses, it should be noted, are a lot easier to write about than to engage, but nobody learns anything unless the events are studied and reported.


“The media often overplay large carnivore attacks on humans, causing increased fear and negative attitudes towards coexisting with and conserving these species,” Penteriani and his colleagues wrote. “Although large carnivore populations are generally increasing in developed countries, increased numbers are not solely responsible for the observed rise in the number of attacks by large carnivores.”

The study notes the sensationalism that often surrounds attacks, but doesn’t suggest ignoring the dangers to keep people from becoming fearful. It suggests just the opposite.

“With an increasing number of large carnivore attacks on humans there is, now more than ever, a need for objective and accurate information regarding not only the long-term trend and underlying mechanisms of large carnivore attacks on humans,” it says.

In Alaska, there has been little discussion of the “underlying mechanisms” or how to deal with them in relation to the latest bears attacks. Scientists studying large-carnivore attacks think this information needs to get more exposure, not less.

“Our main hypothesis is that lack of knowledge of people about how to avoid risky encounters with large carnivores engenders risk-enhancing behaviours, which can determine an increase in the number of attacks if more humans are sharing landscape with large carnivores,” the study says.

This suggestion is for more of the sort of preparedness training a columnist for the state’s still largest newspaper thinks Alaskans need protection from because, well, “you can’t handle the truth.”

Whatever the truth might be.

Bear attacks are complicated in so many ways. It’s about us and how we respond to the bears we meet; and it is about bears and how they respond to the people they meet.

The Penteriani study does suggest hunting, or more accurately the lack thereof, might be playing a role in some of the increase in attacks.

“The patterns of attacks reported here may also reflect an increasing number of bold individuals in large carnivore populations, as this trait is often correlated with aggressiveness, and this might lead to more aggressive responses when large carnivores encounter humans,” it says. “We hypothesise that intense and prolonged human-caused mortality imposes selection pressures on target populations (selective removal of certain phenotypes) and might lead to rapid evolutionary changes.”

Black-bear hunting in some parts of Alaska, including around Anchorage, has been in decline for years, though there is no indication the state has fewer bears than it did 30 years ago. It might have more.

Despite that, statewide hunter kills have fallen more than 50 percent from an average of 2,460 bears in the late 1990s and early 2000s to 1,184 in 2015, the last year for which statistics are readily available.

And Alaskans have become generally more tolerant of bears. Bold and/or troublesome bears used to be quickly eliminated in the Anchorage area. Not so much anymore. When a family of bears became a problem in the state’s largest city in 2015, Gov. Bill Walker suggested Fish and Game save them instead of kill them.

Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten promptly ordered the bears captured and flown to the Kenai Peninsula. It wasn’t long before they ended up in the nearest community and had to be killed because they were becoming dangerous. 

Nature is cold and uncaring. Animals adapt or they die. And people play key roles in how this works.

Evolution of views

As wildlife perceptions shifted in the Earth-Day era of the 1960s and ’70s, Penteriani and his colleagues write, the persecution of large carnivores ended and depressed predator populations began to rebuild.

“Since then, although large carnivores have continued to be hunted or managed,” they wrote. “(But) most populations have generally increased during the past four decades. Increasing population trends in conjunction with relaxed artificial selection may potentially engender higher variation in behavioural temperaments, which is likely to alter individual responses to human encounters. This significant increase of large carnivore populations in both North America and Europe, and their consequent range expansion, also may contribute to explain the observed increase in the attacks on humans.”

Real risks come with increasing populations, the scientists concede, but those risks remain tiny.

As the study notes, attacks “remain extremely rare events – a cross-continental average of 24.1 attacks and 3.9 fatalities per year during the last decade, all species pooled. Other wildlife – bees and mosquitos, spiders, snails, snakes and ungulates (moose, deer, elk) – and domestic dogs are far more responsible for human fatalities.”

Still, there are things human society can do to minimize the risk of attacks on people.

“An important strategy to reduce attacks on humans is to inform people how to avoid and manage aggressive encounters,” the study says. “Understanding the circumstances associated with large carnivore attacks should help us to reduce them and thereby minimize the role that fear and supposition may play in large carnivore management and conservation.”

All of which brings this back to the ignorant conclusion that “teaching preparedness…increases fear.” This is an accusation better aimed at news stories if it is aimed at anything.

Heart of fear

People fear the unknown and the uncontrollable. News stories, by their very nature, focus on those things because the everyday isn’t  “news.” The unusual is news.

Ordinary people who die in automobile accidents in Alaska are a footnote, if that, in the local or their hometown media. People killed by bears are national news.

Does the national exposure increase fear of bears? Probably, except maybe among those who believe the bears are our friends, or that “if I’m nice to the bears, the bears will be nice to me.” Here’s a hint for all of you:

“The bears don’t give a rip,” as Larry Aumiller, the former manager of the bear-filled McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge once observed. Aumiller spent a lot of time around bears. Bears are not touchy-feel critters.

Bears are not of our world of civilization with its rules for good behavior. Bears are of nature’s world where the rules are simple: Do what you need to do to get fat, and if you believe that requires killing something, kill it.

This makes the wild world potentially more dangerous for humans than the civilized world, but not all that dangerous. Not to mention that bears are the least of your worries in wild Alaska. You’re far more likely to get lost and die of exposure, or fall in the water and drown or die of cold-water shock.

Preparedness training helps people deal with the dangers, and it eases their fears – not the opposite.

Were you afraid to get in your car – probably the most dangerous tool you own – and drive to work today? No.

Why? Because you were taught to drive, and you believe rightly or wrongly that you can handle anything that happens on the road.  The road, in your mind, is known and controllable.

A couple of hours before this was written, the author had an encounter with an Anchorage bear. It was a smallish, urban black bear not much bigger than a Labrador retriever. Lars, who is a Labrador, a yellow one, actually ran toward the bear at first thinking it was another dog. He was called back.

I yelled at the bear. The bear looked at me and ran over a hill and down into some Hillside mountain hemlock. Lars turned left on a command to “gee,”and I chased him down a gravel  road on my mountain bike.

Knowledge and experience didn’t make me fearful; they made me smarter and more careful. They also made me reluctant to drop down out of the Chugach Mountains the way we’d gone up on an old homestead road littered with way too much grizzly bear scat.

The surprising amount of bear sign didn’t make me fearful either. It did make me more alert.

Grinding up a wide-open, old roadway at 5 to 7 mph, sometimes less, is one thing. Coming down it at 20 to 25 mph, as is our norm, is something else. The odds of running into a grizzly bear are low. They odds are always low because even the highest grizzly densities in Chugach State Park are pretty low.

But the consequences of running into a bear are high, and the big, heavy piles of large, black crap pointed at one possibility – this bear (or bears) had a moose kill somewhere in the area – and one certainty – there was a considerable amount of bear activity concentrated in one half-mile-long section along this route.

Knowing that, why risk engaging in the kind of behaviour that might increase the odds of a bad encounter?

This sort of knowledge isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It doesn’t make you fearful. It makes you smarter. We need to teach it to more Alaskans, not less.


12 replies »

    • i’m not sure i’d even call that an “attack,” Bill: “The bear chased the dog back to its owner, who waved his arms and decided to sit down on the narrow trail instead of being knocked down by the bear. The bear climbed on top of the man, but it didn’t bite or scratch him.” sit down? why not just jump out of the way as the bear goes past? and what does “climbed on top of the man” even mean? the guy is sitting in the trail. the bear is running. doesn’t it just run over him or into him?

      • I see that it really makes no sense to sit down but I also read that when the guy waved his arms and yelled at the bear for chasing his dog that the bear came for him (at which point he sits down). So it wasn’t that the bear was running in his direction but was coming for him for confronting it.
        Perhaps the rottweiler riled up the bear, but it sure looks like sow black bears do occasionally attack but not in the category of brown bears.

      • there’s no doubt black bears will chase dogs. i’d guess that’s what happened here. given that he was left without a mark, it’s kind of hard for me to call it an “attack.” i wonder where the dog was when he sat down? and, as usual, with no name available so a reporter can call the guy and get a decent firsthand account of what actually happened, we’ve got this garbled picture with different stories providing different versions. is this the government’s idea of how you ease fears of bear attack?

      • Whatever the case, Forest Service still has the complete area closed off to users (until F & G determines its OK). This guy did pick an unusual time to walk the area (4:30 AM) but that’s perhaps due to his dog being something of a discipline problem. What a great time to confront bears, though!

  1. My experience with gee and haw is its haw that is used by mushers for left. I will say that Chubby Checker refers to gee as left and it could be that mule skinners used that term, as I’ve not run across any mule folks who knew the answer.

      • Thanks for clearing that up, Mark.
        I’ve an old photograph of my grandfather’s mule driven combine, harvesting grain in Harrington, WA, and it was controlled by mule skinner (Earl Schwartz-long dead) and I had asked his former wife about the commands used but she didn’t remember.
        Anyway, as I had mentioned Chubby Checker using the commands back asswards in one of his songs, it seemed like something that needed clearing up.

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