Willow’s Collin Vice ran from a grizzly bear this week, and it’s a good thing he did.
A human can’t outrun a bear in a sprint from the blocks. An Alaska wildlife biologist once clocked a grizzly doing 35 mph in front of his truck. The fastest a human has ever been known to run is 27.33 mph.
But when the human has a headstart and there is safe shelter nearby, it doesn’t matter how fast a bear can run. What matters is whether the human can run to safety before the bear gets there.
An experienced Alaska hunter, Vine’s first move in his encounter with a sleepless grizzly that has been roaming the Willow area north of Anchorage was to try to slip away as if he’d never been near, but when “I heard him start charging…I ran,” he messaged Thursday. “Got to my truck and he was well within 30 feet….”
Vine scrambled inside that steel cage, slammed the door and found safety.
The meeting, which left Vine a little shaken, was a stark reminder that self-preservation in bear encounters is situational. The old rule that one should never run from applies generally, but not universally.
There are situations like this one in which standing your ground is the wrong thing to do, not the right thing.
The same applies for advice as to playing dead. This is especially true with black bears, which can be extremely curious.
In one notorious case in Chugach State Park on the edge of Alaska’s largest city, a hiker on the popular Crow Pass Trail encountered a black bear that ran away and promptly climbed a nearby tree. The hiker, having no doubt read somewhere that the thing to do in a bear encounter is play dead, dropped to the ground and did so.
The bear climbed down from the tree, shuffled over to the hiker, sniffed around, and then nipped the hiker in the nose. The hiker screamed and at that the bear, luckily, fled.
Not all such encounters with black bears end so well, though these animals are considered the least dangerous species of bear one is likely to meet in Alaska. They are smaller, less powerful and generally less aggressive than grizzlies, especially when cubs are involved.
Protective mama grizzlies have a long and well-established history of attacking people the bears believe have ventured too close to their cubs. Attacks on humans by black bear sows are so rare as to be almost non-existent.
Canadian researcher Stephen Herrero and colleagues highlighted this behavior in a 2011 paper examining the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 63 people, a very small number, who died in black bear attacks in the U.S. and Canada between 1900 and 2009.
“…If an aggressive female (black bear) with young is encountered, a predatory attack is extremely unlikely since most predatory attacks by black bear were by single male bears,” they wrote in the study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. “While female black bears, even with cubs, seldom attack people they can be provoked into attacking if harassed by people or dogs. (But) the nature of fatal attacks by black bear is somewhat different than fatal attacks by brown bear. For brown bear, a substantial proportion of serious and fatal attacks are defensive and are carried out by a female with young.”
Still, black bears have killed three Alaskans in the past 10 years, the same number as grizzlies. Grizzlies have, however, accounted for more than three times as many Alaska fatalities in the 21st century, not to mention injuries.
Most people attacked by bears survive, but the injuries suffered in grizzly attacks can be significant. Vine said he considers himself lucky.
“I friggin knew better than to go do what I did,” said Vine, who stopped his truck along a Susitna Valley road to investigate what he thought was the snow-covered carcass of a dead bear in a small and now brush-overgrown gravel pit.
He got a big surprise when the snow-covered carcass came to live.
“When he sat up on his ass, sniffed and grunted,” Vine said, the man realized he’d made a serious misjudgment. The bear, which Vine estimated at about 400 pounds, was then within 30 yards. Vine grabbed a photograph, started easing away and when the bear charged, he ran.
By the time the man reached his truck, the original 120-foot separation had shrunk to 30 feet and closing.
“I’m just happy be alive,” said Vine, who suspects the bear has yet to hibernate because it’s living in “a big ass neighborhood with a lot of trashy yards, dog lots and cattle.”
Most Willow area bears should be in hibernation by now. Researchers studying them in the area in the 1980s reported the mean date for den entrance was Oct. 14, now a month back. But the timing of den entrance is highly variable among individual bears and some don’t hibernate at all.
Hibernation is linked to both weather and food. Warmer weather will encourage bears to push back hibernation and if they have a steady supply of food, such as that provided by zoos, they’ll ignore the natural inclination to sleep away the winter.
The Willow bear isn’t the only one putting off hibernation this year. Several grizzlies, including at least one sow with a cub, are reported to be still roaming the Anchorage Hillside, and sows with cubs are usually the first bears into their dens in the fall.
That these bears are still alive is a testament to a newfound tolerance for bears in the 49th state, according to one state wildlife biologist, who noted how grizzlies were once uncommon in the Palmer-Wasilla just north of Alaska’s largest city.
That’s because in an earlier time they were pretty much shot on site. State law allows for the killing of bears in defense of life and property (DLP), and the word “defense’ was once treated very liberally by people living in what was a rural area north of Anchorage.
As the area has become increasingly suburban, however, behaviors have changed, which has allowed grizzlies to partially repopulate some of their old range. In September, a nine-year-old boy was attacked by a sow grizzly with cub near Palmer and seriously injured. His father, who was hunting near the community with him, shot and killed the bear, according to Alaska State Troopers.
State wildlife biologists after that attack said they couldn’t remember the last time someone had been mauled in the Palmer area.