If you’re anywhere in Alaska bear country – and almost all of the 49th state is bear country – and you’re not carrying some sort of bear protection, you’re being foolish.
So conclude two authorities on bears in summarizing their review of 135 years of bear-human conflicts for a study published in the May issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Brigham Young University professor Tom Smith and noted Canadian bear expert Stephen Herrero don’t put their warning in terms as black-and-white as those above, but they’re close.
Bear spray and firearms in the hands of skilled shooters are so effective in saving lives and preventing injuries, they write in Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880 – 2015, that “entering bear country without them is unwise.
“Nonetheless, the vast majority of persons in our database had no bear deterrent on them and when faced with an aggressive or predatory bear had few options. Hence, people run, climb trees and play dead, all with poor results, when they should have been readying a proven deterrent and standing their ground.”
The duo suggest packing bear spray in off-road Alaska should be no different from putting on your seatbelt before driving onto an Alaska highway.
See other safety tips at end of story.
Bear spray is a capsaicin pepper aerosol first developed by archer Mark Matheny after he was attacked by a bear in Montana in 1992 and saved by a hunting companion who happened to be carrying a product called “Karate in a Can” designed for self-protection from human assailants.
“…With his pepper spray canister in hand, (Fred) Bahnson came running toward the bear screaming,” Matheny later wrote. “She dropped me and lunged at Bahnson, who shot a split second blast of spray into the bear’s face just as she knocked him down. I saw Bahnson falling, thinking ‘this is horrible; now she’s getting both of us.”
Only she didn’t. The bear quickly turned away from Bahnson to jump on a squirming Matheny. He played dead, and the bear left him to go for Bahnson again. This time Bahnson hit her again with the bear spray, according to Matheny’s account, from “approximately 10 feet away in the mouth and nose with the nearly full 4 ounce can of spray, emptying it.
“Gasping and choking, the bear veering off into the woods, the cubs bounding after her.”
Matheny and Bahnson thus became the first people to save themselves from a grizzly with pepper spray, and Matheny was given the idea that led him to found UDAP, the first of several companies to get into the bear spray business.
The rest is history.
“As of 2015, 75 instances of bear spray use were recorded (in Alaska) of which 70 (93.3 percent) were successful in altering bears’ aggressive behavior whereas five (6.7 percent) were not,” Smith and Herrero write.
“However, of the 197 persons involved in those 75 encounters only four received slight injuries (2 percent) – all inflicted by grizzly bears.”
There is a significant likelihood, the scientists add, that the spray worked on a lot more bears than are in the study. Smith and Herrero says information on bear attacks, which involve people being injured by a bear, is limited, and information on incidents, in which people are involved in non-injury incidenst, even more so.
“Unquestionably,” they write, “many incidents go unreported for a variety of reasons. It is believed that many human-bear interactions resolve peacefully, are not newsworthy, and therefore underreported. This (also) includes times when persons successfully dispatch a bear with a firearm.”
There is an old saying on how to deal with aggressive bears in the non-urban areas of Alaska: “shoot, shovel and shut up.” How many bears die this way is impossible to know. Data on attacks in which people are injured is better but not perfect.
“No state or federal agency is responsible for maintaining records of injuries or deaths from bear attacks or bear incidents in Alaska,” the researchers write, and the state of Alaska has hampered research by refusing to release reports on defense of life and property (DLP) kills after 1990.
“Some speculate that more records are needed for a more accurate analysis of human-bear conflict in Alaska,” Smith and Herrero caution, “but we have no reason to believe that the basic insights provided by this analysis would change in significant ways with their addition.”
Their conclusion as to weapons, it should be noted, was long ago recognized by both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, which require employees working in Alaska to carry firearms in the field.
The rule would appear well founded. The study says attacks on researchers have increased five-fold since 1980 with five incidents before and 33 after. The numbers appear to reflect the increased amount of scientific research underway in the 49th state.
Lifestyle changes are clearly reflected in the data, too. Since 1980, attacks on joggers went up nineteen fold from one to 19, and those on cyclists grew five fold from one to five.
“None of these joggers or bicyclists were carrying a bear deterrent, and we believe that contributed to the outcome,” the study added.
Hikers and hunters remain far and away the largest category of people attacked by bears. Attacks on hunters have been going down, though, with attacks on hikers going up, probably representative of another lifestyle change.
Hunters and hikers make up about half of all those involved in serious bear incidents or attacks followed in diminishing order by fishermen, researchers, joggers, trappers, cyclists, photographers, people butchering fish or game, and berry pickers.
About half of the serious incidents recorded over the past 135 years involved people who escaped without injury. Sixty-two people died after being attacked, however, and another 59 were severely injured.
Grizzly bears are the big danger, inflicting 83.5 percent of all injuries and accounting for 79 percent of the deaths. Polar bears, despite their deadly reputation, have killed only two people since 1880. Black bears, up until 2015, had killed only five.
“Most human-black bear interactions end with the bear seeking refuge in cover,” the study notes. “The paucity of black bear attacks in 135 years of history attest to this” inherent black bear survival strategy of fleeing any potential danger.
But black bear attacks are up more than 25 percent since the study was completed. Two deaths last year brought the black bear total to seven. Black bears killed a teenage boy in the Anchorage area and an Anchorage woman in Central Alaska.
Eighty three percent of those attacked in Alaska since 1880 were adult men, the study said. Seventy-four percent of the attacks happened between June and November, but there were attacks in every month of the year. Almost half involved someone surprising a bear.
More than 40 percent, however, involved bears approaching people, either because the bear was curious or saw the human as possible prey. The study concluded humans started the problem 46 percent of the time and bears the other 30 percent. In the remaining 25 percent of cases, it was impossible to tell who initiated the incident.
Attacks were most common from 2 to 5 p.m., which could be a simple reflection of when most people are on the trail. Few serious bear encounters occurred from midnight through 10 a.m., but when they did, they usually involved an attack.
And a third of all attacks took place during those night-time hours. Fifty-eight percent of all attacks were in brushy or wooded areas where visibility was limited.
Firearms were used in self-defense 236 times, and in more than 75 percent of those cases stopped the bear.
“Reasons for firearm failures included not enough time to react, shots missed the bear, wounded bear, mechanical failure (short-stroked or mechanism jammed) and reluctance to shoot which gave the bear time to make contact,” the study said. “Given that nearly 50 percent of all encounters occurred with less than 10 meters, it is not surprising that firearms can be difficult to bring into play in many bear encounters.”
The need for skill to use a firearm versus the little skill needed to use bear spray led the researchers to recommend the latter over the former. Federal agencies which issue firearms in Alaska require employees and volunteers complete a firearm training program before going out into the wild.
Dogs in the wilderness are a much debated subject, and the study data there is interesting.
Herrero in a 2014 study cautioned that dogs might well spark attacks. After examining 92 attacks in North America between 2010 and 2014, he and a colleague concluded that in the majority of cases it appeared loose-running dogs brought bears back to people.
A subsequent study by Spanish researcher Vincenzo Penteriani, and colleagues from around the globe including Herrero, concluded that “unleashed dogs can exacerbate the probability of a large carnivore attack (by big cats or bears) because a dog that runs away from a large carnivore towards the owner can trigger a dangerous situation when the carnivore chases it.
“When dogs were involved, large carnivores usually focused their attention on the dog rather than on the person. However, in some instances the human was attacked as a consequence of its proximity to the dog or because of its reaction towards the large carnivore.”
Herrero and Smith found five cases where “dogs were likely responsible for inciting an attack, either by bringing a bear back to its owner (four cases) or barking, thus attracting the bear (1 case).”
On the other hand, there were 19 cases in which “dogs defending persons were successful in terminating the mauling.”
The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the study as to whether dogs are a good thing or a bad thing in bear country is that it depends on the dog.
Meanwhile, there are clearly some good things for increasing safety in bear country that are not debatable. Most of these have been well known for a long time but the study underlines them.
- Travel with friends and stay close. The study found not a single case of two or more people injured by a bear “while grouping together and standing their ground when faced with an aggressive bear.” Only when people broke and ran did bears sometimes give chase and grab someone from behind.
- Stay alert. Situational awareness played a big role in the study. The study judged 60 percent of attacks avoidable if people had spotted the bear soon enough and behaved properly.
- Voice your presence in brushy or densely wooded areas. Bear conflicts happened most often there. When such areas are unavoidable, the scientists advised, “group together and make noise to avoid surprising bears.”
- Depend on your friends. “When rescuers came to the aid of bear attack victims, the mauling ended 91 percent of the time,” the study concluded. There is, however, about a 10 percent chance a rescuer will get injured aiding a companion.
- Carry protection. “Ninety-eight percent of persons using spray avoided any injury,” the study concluded. “Firearms were effective 76 percent of the time.”
- And if a bear should get you down and you decide to play dead – the advisable behavior when attacked by a grizzly bear with cubs – lace your fingers behind your neck and try to protect your head. “They focus on the victim’s head-neck region 4.5 times more often than would be expected if the attack site was a random choice,”the study said.
Overall, however, the study suggests that scary as bears might be, the odds of being attacked are tiny.
Bear human-conflicts have increased as Alaska’s human population has expanded, but there are still only 7.6 incidents per year on average in this decade, and the odds of surviving an attack are better than 75 percent.
“Human-bear conflicts are rare events,” the study says, and “undoubtedly,” countless interactions between and people and bears occur without incident.”
A close reading of the neighborhood website Nextdoor and Facebook shows there have so far this year been daily encounters between people and bears in Anchorage, but as of yet only one attack by a bear on a human. The bears have not fared as well.
To date, the Anchorage Police Department, the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have combined to kill six grizzly bears and three black bears deemed threats to public safety, a Fish and Game spokesman messaged Friday.