Update: This story was revised to include more information on lightning deaths.
“Pray” is not on the list, but might be as helpful as some of what is there.
As is probably to be expected, the online primer in the form of a quiz is interactive, rather entertaining, shallow, simplistic and in some cases just plain wrong, starting with question number one:
“In any given year, given the averages, you are least likely to die from a:
- “Lightning strike
- “Shark bite
- “Bear attack
- “Snake bite”
According to the Times, the “correct” answer to this question is “bear attack.”
“There are some 40 bear attacks per year around the world, and about 10 in North America, with one or two proving deadly,” the Times claims. “In comparison, over the past 10 years, the United States has averaged about 27 reported deaths a year from lightning; 7,000 to 8,000 venomous snake bites per year, five of them fatal; and last year there were 33 unprovoked shark encounters in American waters, three of which proved deadly.”
The first problem here is the use of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Your odds of dying from any of these things are proportional to your exposure to the risk of dying from any of these things.
You can be struck by lightning and die almost anywhere in the country. Three people were killed by a lightning strike in Washington, D.C.’s Washington, DC, Lafayette Park in 2022. Bears have killed no one in the nation’s capital in modern times. Neither have bears killed anyone in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles or other major urban area.
So in assessing any risk of being killed by a bear, you have to leave out the tens of millions of people who never leave those cities, which changes everything. Suddenly the risk to the comparatively few people actually living in or visiting bear territory jumps up.
Proportionately, the average American is far less likely to die from a lightning strike given that Americans are each year exposed to the risk of being hit by lightning any time they go outside, as the Lafayette Park deaths well illustrate. Take the 27 lightning-caused deaths and put them in the pool of 336 million Americans, and the ratio of death to exposure comes out to about 0.008 deaths per 100,000 people.
The rate of death from bear attacks? Who knows.
But let’s say you live in Alaska where bears now kill one or two people a year. Then let’s go with the lowest figure – one death per year – and assume all 733,000 Alaskans are at risk of being killed by a bear even if a sizable number of them never leave the state’s urban areas where you are almost as safe from bear attack as in any other city.
The ratio of death to exposure then comes out to about 0.136 deaths per 100,000 people. It’s still a tiny risk, but it’s 17 times greater than being killed by lightning.
Realistically, the rate probably lower than this because of those aforementioned urban Alaskans, but also probably higher given that the people living in or visiting some sparsely populated areas of the American West are also at risk of being killed by a bear. So let’s just take a wild-ass guess and say the death rate overall is half that Alaska calculation of 0.136 per 100,000 or 0.068.
Now the risk of being killed by a bear is about eight and a half times greater than being killed by lightning.
This is fun with numbers.
The good news is that your odds of surviving a bear attack are high just as they are with lightning strikes, though no one has any idea of how many people survive bear attacks each year. Record keeping on bear attacks is notoriously hit and miss, especially in Alaska which suffers more bear attacks and fatalities than any other state.
Still, there is enough data to make The Times’ claim to 10 bear attacks in North America each year pretty clearly “fake news.”
Alaska has a law that allows people to legally shoot bears that are attacking them or their property. In some years, there have been as many as 33 of these so-called “defense of life and property (DLP)” shootings in Anchorage alone.
There can be dozens more statewide. How many involve actual self-defense and how many involve the protection of property, such as with a bear in someone’s chicken coop or trying to eat their horse, is unclear. But there are clearly more than 10 bear attacks in Alaska alone every year.
According to state wildlife biologists, there are likely way more than 10 black bears shot each year because they are threatening people with the shootings never being reported because the bears are claimed as hunting kills. And in recent years, there are probably more than 10 bear attacks per year repelled by pepper spray, which has become widely used.
The state doesn’t even make an attempt to catalog those attacks.
Simply put, “bear attacks” tin Alaska are widely underreported, making that unsourced claim to “about 10” bear attacks in North America nonsense.
If bear lover Timothy Treadwell – the man described by some media as an “amateur bear expert” after he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a Katmai National Park bear in 2003 – had taken bear spray with him to Katmai, that attack would likely have gone unreported.
Armed with some sort of defense against an attack, Treadwell would probably be alive today. And if he’d stayed home in California, he’d almost certainly still be alive today.
Instead, he injected himself and his girlfriend Amie Hugenard into an environment full of bears at a time of year when the animals were most likely to be ravenous and took no weapon to ward them off other than a frying pan. It didn’t work.
Treadwell does, however, serve to nicely illustrate the nonsense of using continent-wide figures to rank the danger of bear attacks when most U.S. states lack grizzly bears, the deadliest bears.
Grizzlies now pose no risk in California, the nation’s most populous state, because the last California grizzly bear was reported killed in the 1920s. The grizzly bear lives on only as a symbol on the state flag.
It’s a different story, however, if you are living in the coastal rain forest of the Alaska Panhandle where there are no poisonous snakes, the water is generally too cold for swimming and lightning strikes are rare. There your risk of falling victim to snakes is zero, and the risks of sharks and lightning close to that number.
The risk of becoming a victim of a bear attack is not huge, but it is hugely bigger than for someone living in Californa. In the summer of 2016, there were four attacks in two months in a corner of that region about the size of Phoenix.
And just days ago, a Fish and Game employee counting salmon on a creek in the same area was attacked by a bear.
Sitka radio reported that Jess Coltharp survived after a companion shot and killed the animal. Most people attacked by bears do survive. A study of attacks in Alaska between 2000 and 2017 found that of those suffering the worst injuries about 91 percent survived.
There were in that period 68 people hospitalized and seven killed. The study did not include those injured by bears but not hospitalized.
The death rate of one per year for the study period does bring into question the NYT claim to a continent-wide count of “one or two proving deadly.” At the very least, with one attack per year the historical average and the count growing, the reference should be to “at least one and possibly as many as six proving deadly per year.”
Six is the number of people killed by bears in 2021 as documented by the Wikipedia list of “fatal bear attacks in North America.” For the first two years of the decade, it registers 11 deaths – five involving black bears and six involving grizzly bears or what Alaskans call “brown bears.”
That would put the decadal average at five and a half deaths per year. Such a death toll would rank bears now more dangerous than snakes and sharks if the NYT reporting on deaths from those causes is accurate, but the sample size is small. The average could fall significantly by the end of the decade or it could go up. There is no way to tell.
Two of the 11 deadly attacks so far this decade – 22 percent – were in Alaska and seven of 11 – 64 percent – were in Canada or Alaska, illustrating the geographic differences in risk.
Suffice to say, your odds of being attacked by a bear in New York City’s Central Park are near zero. It would be tempting to put the risks at zero, but given that coyotes have been seen in the park, it is not impossible that a black bear could wander in from nearby New Jersey, where such bears are now plentiful, and injure someone.
The odds of someone getting killed by a black bear there, however, are infinitesimal. Black bears are, in general, far less of a threat to people than brown bears, although either species can prove deadly, especially for anyone who might choose to follow the oft-heard advice to “play dead” when attacked by any ole bear.
Such advice remains sound if you are attacked by a sow brown bear with cubs. Those bears usually appear to be responding to the belief their cubs are being threatened. Their goal, based on evidence from tens of attacks in Alaska and elsewhere, is that they want to neutralize the threat and flee.
Black bear sows with cubs, on the other hand, almost never attack people. As Canadian biologist Stephen Herrero has noted “most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by one bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.”
Herrero has spent most of his career studying bear attacks.
“Adult or subadult male (black) bears were involved in 92 percent of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears,” he has written.
Herrero’s reference to adult or “subadult” black bears runs counter to the NYT advice that the “most worrisome” bear you can encounter is “a large bear that seems to be stalking you.”
Any bear that appears to be stalking you should be considered worrisome, and if it is black bear, you should respond aggressively. Potentially predatory black bears have been driven off by people armed with rocks or sticks as weapons, although discouraging such bears is not always easy.
Canadian biologist Rob Foster working in remote Ontario in June 2013 reported a harrowing incident in which he was forced to pepper spray a black bear so many times he feared he would run out of spray before the bear gave up.
He eventually took to charging at the bear while bringing up the can as if to spray it, which would push the bear back. He later stated the belief that if he hadn’t aggressively and repeatedly gone at the bear screaming, sometimes waving his arm and threatening it with the can of spray, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. It was a flat-out predatory attack.”
Some things right
The NYT interactive guide does, thankfully, recognize the behavioral differences between black and brown bears, but the photos used to train people in how to tell one species from the other are so simplistic as to be useless.
They are pictures of bears black in color and brown in color. Unfortunately, some brown bears are almost black, and a lot of black bears are brown or “cinnamon” in color. A number of these brownish “black bears” now frequent subdivisions on the Anchorage Hillside.
If you end up in a face-to-face encounter with a bear, it is important to know the species and not just the color. A cinnamon-colored black bear with cubs stomping her feet at you is one thing. Mama black bears bluff a lot but seldom attack.
On the other hand, if you’re facing a foot-stomping, teeth-popping blackish brown bear with cubs, well, you’re in big trouble. This is a “worrisome bear,” though it is not on the NYT list of “most worrisome” bears.
Choices there include a bear feeding on an elk kill (pretty worrisome if you are close) or a bear chasing the dog running back to you (also plenty worrisome). But the correct answer, according to the Times, is a “large bear stalking you.”
The problem is any bear “stalking you” should be considered dangerous, given that stalking is a hunting-related activity.
And how is the average urban resident supposed to tell a “stalking” bear from a bear simply walking toward him or her? The same for what constitutes a “large bear.”
To many city residents, a 150-pound black bear looks “large” and a 300-pound brown bear, small for that species in coastal areas, looks “huge.”
It is worrisome when one of those “huge” brown bears comes running across the tundra for a mile in an effort to identify an unidentifiable object moving in the distance if that object happens to be you.
But it’s not the “most worrisome” bear because the curious bears almost always turn around and go the other way if you start waving your arms and yelling.
Making yourself as big as possible and making noise will drive away most of the bears most of the time. . But this technique is unlikely to work if you are so unlucky as to stumble on a bear feeding on the carcass of an elk or other big game at close range.
No matter what the NYT says, this is arguably the “most worrisome” bear attack.
Some of the NYT advice is, of course, just stupid. To wit:
“You’re out walking with your kids and dog in your leafy suburban neighborhood, just miles from downtown Manhattan, when you spot a bear in the park across the street! What do you do?”
The choices are “get closer to try to take a selfie, try to pet the bear, shout loudly to drive the bear away,” and “stop and enjoy it.”
The NYT’s choice is to “stop and enjoy it,” which is obviously better than the other choices and might be perfectly fine if the bear is in the park contentedly grazing on dandelions.
Then again, it might be the wrong choice if the street is narrow, and the bear is ambling your way or if your dog has gone running into the park to investigate the bear or if you have a yappy little dog on a leash that has attracted the bear’s attention.
It is more than a little ironic that the suburban neighborhood question in the NYT’s handy guide is followed with this question:
“True or false? Most bear attacks occur when someone has gotten within about 50 yards of a bear.”
So if the 50-yard rule applies, you shouldn’t be stopping to enjoy watching the bear unless you’re on the far side of the road and the bear is 40 yards (120 feet deep) in the park.
Other observations in the NYT guide are misleading because of a failure to understand the nature of the bear-attack data. For instance, there is this:
“In one global study of 279 people who were attacked by bears while engaged in recreational activities, most were hiking (88), followed by picking berries or mushrooms or scavenging for antlers (64), camping (31), fishing (18) or jogging (17). Hunters accounted for about 20 percent of bear attacks, while people who work outdoors – such as farmers, loggers and wildlife researchers – were involved in just over a quarter of cases.”
The problem is the numbers, while correct, do not accurately represent the risks. The numbers come from a global study conducted by European researchers in 2019; in that study, they also noted most bear attacks involve “risk-enhancing human behaviors (e.g. moving alone and being silent in bear country, walking an unleashed dog, or chasing a wounded bear while hunting).”
There are more attacks on hikers than any other group simply because there are more hikers. On a per-capita basis, other studies have found that “hunting was the activity most commonly associated with grizzly bear attacks,” the deadliest of attacks. This is because hunters are most likely to be “moving alone and being silent in bear country.”
As a general rule, hunters are also the people most likely to be able to protect themselves and thus their death rate in attacks is lower. An Alaska candidate for the U.S. Senate once made a big deal of how he was among the hunters who shot a bear to save himself as if it that would help get him elected; it didn’t.
The NYT quiz overstates the risks to hikers by using gross figures on attacks instead of reporting per capita rates. The newspaper does, however, to its credit, underline the safety inherent in traveling in a group – the bigger the better – and making plenty of noise to warn bears against surprise encounters.
But even there, it fails to note the importance of group cohesion if this safety tactic is to work. Guide Anna ‘Marika’ Powers was leading a group of 23 hikers along a Chichagof Island trail in Southeast Alaska when she was attacked and badly mauled by a brown bear in 2016.
Unfortunately, the people were all strung out behind her on the trail, and thus did nothing to intimidate the bear. Fortunately, another guide with the group heard what was happening, charged the bear and used pepper spray to get it off Powers.
Four young people enrolled in a program run by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) were injured – two of them seriously – in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains in 2012 after the leader of a group of seven hikers encountered a bear and caused the others to scatter in panic rather than gather together for self-defense.
The NYT makes no mention of this very real problem. Bear attacks are scary, and there is a natural human reaction to panic and flee.
Other advice in the NYT quiz is just strange. It generally advises against climbing trees to escape bears, but then adds this:
“Trees may be most useful when a bear hasn’t spotted you yet, and you have plenty of time to climb and wait until the bear is gone.”
If the bear hasn’t spotted you and you have plenty of time, the best idea is not to climb a tree but plot a course that takes you away from the bear and then slink away from the scene.
The NYT also offers some advice you can ignore, starting with the idea of letting “the bear know you’re a person and are not out to harm it.”
The bears don’t care. They don’t understand English or any other language. Telling them, “Don’t worry; I’m your friend” is no more and no less effective than calmly telling them “I’m armed you !@#$%^ and if you take one more step, I’ll blow your brains out.”
The bears don’t understand your words either way although it is good to talk. “Your voice helps the bear identify you as human,” as Alaska wildlife biologists note in the state’s guide to dealing with bears.
That document is significantly better than the Times quiz in offering guidance on how to deal with bears.
The guide was written for hunters, who face the highest odds of close encounters, but the advice is good for everyone. In its simplest form, it boils down to this:
- “Make noise so you don’t surprise a bear. Stay alert and look for signs of bears. (If you’re hiking in an area with bear shit all around you need to be more alert than hiking in an area with no sign of bears.”
- “Never approach or crowd bears; respect their ‘personal space.’
- “Keep food, garbage and other attractants out of reach of bears.
- “Stay calm during a bear encounter. Ready your deterrent (pepper spray, a firearm, a flare, an umbrella, whatever else you might have available). Stand your ground, group up with others and alert the bear by talking calmly. Don’t run.”
Lastly, be forewarned that the NYT offers some advice that is now being called into question.
“An old bear saying goes: ‘If it’s black, fight back. If it’s brown, lie down,'” the newspaper says.
Yes, it was an old saying. Whether it remains true is debatable. It still appears to apply to brown bears with cubs, but beyond that things are not so clear cut.
There have been a number of predatory brown bear attacks in Alaska in recent years. A Kenai Peninsula man was last year killed by a brown bear in what might have been a predatory attack, although only a black bear – which state officials killed near the site of the attack – was proven to have fed on his body.
A 2018 attack in Eagle River was less ambiguous. In that case, a family of brown bears attacked, killed and fed on a local man who’d gone for a hike in his neighborhood. It was the exception to the rule that sows with cubs only want to eliminate threats and move on.
Two people were also killed and partially eaten by Alaska brown bears in 2012. A sow and cub were seen near where 54-year-old Tomas Puerta from Sitka died at Poison Cove just off Peril Strait in the Alaska Panhandle, but it was never proven that they killed him.
But some brown bear ate him given there are no black bears on Chichagof Island where Poison Cove is located.
Meanwhile, the evidence in the case of 49-year-old hiker Richard White from San Diego was clear. He was hiking in Denali National Park and Preserve. National Park rangers who went to investigate a report of a bear mauling found a bear near White’s partially eaten body.
They shot and killed the large adult male. A further investigation revealed that White had been taking photographs of the bear as it approached to within 60 yards.
What happened after that is unknown, but the bear killed the defenseless man. Whether White tried to fight back is not known, but fighting back is the thing to do during such attacks.
Then 68-year-old Gene Moe famously fought off a 750-pound Kodiak Island brown bear with a pocket knife in 1999. The animal had him down when he stabbed it three times in the neck, which caused it to break off the attack.
Moe was then able to recover his hunting rifle nearby and shoot the animal three times. The shots killed the bear. A badly mangled Moe managed to hike to a beach on Rasberry Island in the Kodiak Archipelago.
Others rendered first aid there. Moe survived and eventually recovered as fp most victims of bear attacks/
Possibly the best advice for dealing with bears in bear country, versus Central Park, is this:
Get a weapon – pepper spray, a firearm, an umbrella you can pop open in a bears face, a road flare, an air horn or whatever else you are most comfortable with – learn to use it, and carry it with you.
Many state and federal agencies now require their employees to carry weapons for bear defense when working in the Alaska wilds. A number of employees of or contractors with these agencies, including Coltharp, have been involved in self-defense shootings of bears in the state this year.
The most useful “old saying” in Alaska, nearly all of which is bear country, is this one: “It is better to have a weapon and not need it than to need a weapon and not have it.”