A new study is out from the Alaska Section of Epidemiology underlining just how tiny the risk of being attacked by a bear in the 49th state. It’s almost certain to add to a fear of bruins that runs deep.
Only weeks ago a young woman suffering a severe case of bearanoia accidentally shot herself with the firearm she was cuddling in her sleeping bag in the belief it would protect her. She might have died in a tent in the Talkeetna Mountains but for the efforts of the Alaska National Guard pararescue jumpers who came to her aid.
The problem with the new injury report – which blames the media for news coverage that “can inflate public perception of the frequency and risk of attacks” – is not with the facts it details from research into hospitalizations and deaths from 2000 to 2017, but with its speculation on the future.
The report led Alaska Public Media reporter Zachariah Hughes to Tweet this summary: “In 17 years of data, Alaska health officials say bear attacks on humans are increasing, likely from more habitat overlap.”
That’s not what the report says. What it says is that the number of attacks changed little over those almost two decades, but the way the Epidemiology Bulletin couches the information is problematic.
“While the annual number of bear attack hospitalizations in Alaska does not appear to have changed considerably over the study period (2000-2017),” the authors write, “many of the factors precipitating increases in human-bear interactions worldwide also hold true in Alaska.”
The study offers no evidence to back the latter assertion. It suggests there is a global jump in conflicts due to “increased habitat overlap due to the growth of human populations and increased human engagement in outdoor recreation.”
As evidence, it footnotes a study by Giulia Bombieri of Spain’s University of Oviedo and colleagues published in Nature this summer. The study says bear attacks have ticked upward because of “the end of legal and widespread persecution, strict protection measures, and reintroductions have allowed brown bear (Ursus arctos) populations to recover and expand in many areas of North America and Europe.”
Those issues don’t really apply to Alaska. Bears were persecuted by the federal government when Alaska was a territory as Wayne Regelin, a former director of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has noted:
“The first aerial shooting began in 1948 and was conducted, primarily by federal agents, until the late 1950s when aircraft became more common. Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game once observed. “These efforts resulted in low wolf and bear populations and high populations of ungulates.”
But when the state took over wildlife management in 1960, one of its first actions was to end the federal war on predators – both wolves and bears. The new state banned poisoning which had indiscriminately killed grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes and more.
Over the years that followed, bear management in Alaska became increasingly conservative. Bears in Alaska were never depressed to the extent they were elsewhere or eliminated as in some states, and they had clearly reached something near historical carrying capacity by the year 2000.
Alaska is like nowhere else and especially not the Lower 48 states where the situation as regards bears is wholly different.
As Jon Beckman, the science director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Rocky Mountain west program told The Guardian last fall, “bears are a good conservation story, but they are starting to show up in places that haven’t seen them in generations, 80 years or more. We are seeing conflicts happen in the west, as well as New York, New Jersey, all over the place. We want to see more species on the landscape but we have to realize there’s an impact on people when they interact, too.”
Alaska doesn’t have the same “habitat overlap” issues as the other states, either. Let alone the “habitat overlap” problems of Europe.
Alaska has grown over the years, but its population of 737,000 remains smaller than the city of Charlotte, N.C. , and most Alaska growth has come in the already well-populated areas of Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Parts of rural Alaska, such as the bear-filled Bristol Bay region, have actually depopulated in the past 20 years. The Bristol Bay Borough, one of the biggest counties in the nation, has been fading since the 1990s.
The human-bear habitat overlap has been shrinking – not growing – there and in other rural areas. It is possible the habitat overlap problems cited by Bombieri will someday come to the state, but the day does not look all that near with the state economy stagnant and no one sure of what the future economy might be.
Power of suggestion
The focus on how the “frequency of bear attacks on humans appears to be
increasing globally,” and how “many of the factors precipitating increases in human-bear interactions worldwide also hold true in Alaska” undermine the report’s key conclusions that no matter how afraid Alaskans might be of bears in the wake of several very public deaths in the last two years, the risk of being attacked by a bear doesn’t appear to have increased much if at all.
The fear of bears is far greater than the danger of bears.
“During 2000–2017, 68 people were hospitalized for injuries sustained during 66 unique bear attacks,” the study says.That number is tiny when compared to other injury data.
Between 2000 and 2017, the report cites 467 people hospitalized after being attacked by dogs, 1,825 hospitalized after bicycle accidents, 4,832 hospitalized after off-road vehicle accidents, and 8,283 hospitalized after highway motor-vehicle accidents.
The average, yearly number of people hospitalized after bicycle accidents – 101.4 – dwarfs the total number of people hospitalized by bear attacks – 68 – over the course of the entire 17 years.
And with motor-vehicles, the numbers are so starkly different as to be largely incomparable. One-hundred-twenty-two times as many people were hospitalized by car and truck collisions as by bears from 2000 to 2017, according to the study.
Fatal crashes in ever year killed almost as many people or more than bears killed in all 17 years. Highway death tolls climbed as high as 96 in 2004, according to data from the Alaska Department of Transportation, which are not included in the study.
The study claims its intent is “to put the risk of (bear attack) occurrence into perspective.” It makes this claim one paragraph after stating that “the frequency of bear attacks on humans appears to be increasing globally.”
People have a hard time putting risks in perspective even when the facts are presented without that spin. That is only more true in Alaska today following a rash of fatal bear attacks in the last two years and a growing number of deaths this decade.
Hospitalizations might not have changed much from 2000 to 2017, but the seven fatalities this decade are the highest since the 1990s. There were 10 people killed by bears that decad after which the number dropped to three in the 2000s, just one more than in the 1970s.
The numbers are so small, the attacks so random and isolated, the data describing exactly what happened so limited that it is hard to draw any conclusions other than that people are on rare occasions attacked by bears and a few of those attacked – very few – die.
It’s the same with lightening. Ninety percent of the people hit survive. So, too, almost 90 percent of the people attacked by bears from 2000 to 2017.
The reality is the data indicates bear attacks remain so rare in Alaska they almost aren’t worth worrying about except in areas where bears are known to concentrate.
“Nearly half (43 percent) of bear attack hospitalizations were the result of bear attacks that took place in the Gulf Coast region of Alaska,” the new report says. The salmon-rich coast generally has the highest density of bears in Alaska, which ups the chances of unexpected encounters.
“Of the 29 hospitalized bear attack injuries that occurred in the Gulf Coast region,
20 (69 percent) occurred on the Kenai Peninsula,” the report said.
The salmon-rich, road-accessible Kenai just south of the Anchorage metropolitan area home to more than half of Alaska’s population is the most popular destination for recreation in a state with few roads.
The Kenai also once had the state’s most depressed bear population. Twenty years ago, state wildlife managers feared Kenai brown bears were an isolated population that might be threatened with extinction. The population was managed very conservatively for years and is now considered healthy.
The Kenai might be one of the few areas in Alaska that bears some similarity to the rest of the globe, but even there much of the land is protected in the nearly 2-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the nearly 7-million-acre Chugach National Forest, which sharply limits one of the “habitat overlap” problems raised by Bombieri, “owning a second house in natural areas outside the city (which) has become a common trend. Such intensified use of wilderness area by humans, especially people that are not used to cohabit with wildlife, increases the probabilities of potentially dangerous encounters with these species.”
In Alaska, the probabilities of potentially dangerous encounters come in the pretty much same old ways they always have come, according to the epidemiology report. Hunters, who spend their time sneaking around in the woods and thus are more likely to surprise bears, account for the largest group attacked.
More than a quarter of the attacks from 2000 to 2017 involved hunters, but hikers, walkers, dog-walkers and runners – some of whom might not be paying attention to much of anything while in the woods – now account for a combined 35 percent.
More than 90 percent of the attacks involve grizzly bears, but a somewhat surprising 30 percent of the fatalities (three dead) were caused by black bears. Though predatory black bears are rare, they are a now well-documented threat.
Black bears attack even more rarely than grizzly bears, and sow black bears with cubs almost never attack. From 2000 to 2017, there were but five documented attacks, and in those incidents black bears killed three people.
Everyone in Alaska should know how to distinguish a grizzly bear from a black because if the latter attacks, the last thing you should do is play dead. The bear wants you dead. Don’t help it. Fight back.
In terms of personal protection from bears, the new study just underlines what has been learned from earlier studies.
“In four of the eight (fatal) incidents, the victim was alone at the time of the attack. The remaining four incidents involved groups of two people. Two of the four incidents resulted in the death of both group members and two incidents resulted in one fatality with little or no physical injury to the second group member,” the study says. The warning that the best bear protection is to travel with a group has been many times repeated.
“At least five (50 percent) of the 10 fatal bear attack victims either did not possess any bear deterrents or possessed a bear deterrent that was not readily accessible at the time of the attack,” the study says, but there is no way of knowing how many – if any – might have been saved by a firearm or bear spray given that such deterrents apparently didn’t work for the other 50 percent.
The study recommends “everyone who is recreating or working in bear country should always carry a bear deterrent for defense and practice accessing and using the deterrent before relying on it for defense in a high-pressure situation….It remains imperative that people engaged in such activities be prepared for bear encounters and attacks every time they travel in the backcountry.”
The advice is sound, but probably just adds to the bearanoia.
Over the course of four decades in Alaska, the author has spent tens of thousands of hours traveling in the backcountry – often without a bear deterrent, regularly alone – and found bear encounters to be generally rare given that most bears avoid people.
I also have had a variety of close encounters with bears while hunting and was forced to shoot a sow grizzly off my leg after she attacked me while moose hunting on the Kenai decades ago. Hunters, of course, are by definition carrying a “bear deterrent.”
I have regularly carted pepper spray around the Anchorage Hillside because the state’s largest city (like Tahoe, Calif.) has a growing number of habituated bears that don’t necessarily run in fear of humans yelling at them. But I have yet to use the spray.
I have on a couple occasions thought about using it to get the attention of recalcitrant blacks bears and one curious young grizzly bear, but didn’t.
In none of those cases, however, was a deterrent really necessary because most bears, as the statistics indicate, are less dangerous than loose dogs. But that doesn’t stop the possibility of encountering the rare “killer bear” from scaring the bejesus out of some Alaskans and visitors to the 49th state.
And there is no denying that if you ever run into that exceedingly rare, predatory bear, you best have a weapon of some kind – firearm, spray, even a good knife. Sixty-eight-year-old, deer hunting Gene Moe of Anchorage killed an attacking, 750-pound grizzly with a knife on Raspberry Island near Kodiak in 1999, and British Columbia man did the same thing only weeks ago.
Canadian Colin Dowler told the BBC he first tried fending the bear off with a mountain bike and then a ski pole, but neither worked. After being knocked down, chewed on and dragged into a ditch, Dowler told the BBC, he pulled pocket knife from his right pants pocket – “it was painful to do so as he could hear the grating of bear teeth on bone,” the BBC reported – and went for the bear’s neck.”
The bear started gushing blood, dropped Dowler and fled. Provincial authorities later found an injured bear in the area and killed it. It was found to have suffered a knife wound to the neck.
The indigenous residents of Alaska managed to survive here for thousands of years before the arrival of firearms and pepper spray. It seems rather amazing. If bears were as dangerous as some in Alaska now believe, the country would have been vacant when the first White people showed up.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story mischaracterized the status of the Kenai grizzly bear population.