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The New West: Study of Alaska bear attacks sheds fresh light on causes



CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Ponder this: men up north get attacked by bears more than four times as often as women do.

For humans, the average encounter with a brown/grizzly bear is 3.5 times more dangerous than the average encounter with a polar bear and 21 times more dangerous than the average encounter with a black bear.

Up north, in 52 percent of all close encounters with bears over the last 125 years, no one was injured. When injury did occur, people tended to sustain wounds to their head/neck areas 4.5 times higher than the expected rate.

More than 40 percent of all human encounters with bears are owed to people surprising bruins and most “could have been avoided had the persons involved made noise appropriately, to let the bear know of their presence in advance of their appearance, thus avoiding conflict.”

These are just some of the insights surfacing from a new scientific paper assembled by noted bear attack guru Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, and research wildlife biologist Tom Smith of Brigham Young University.

In their exhaustive review titled “A Brief Summary of Bear-Human Interactions in Alaska: 1883-2014,” Herrero and Smith raked through incident reports and eyewitness statements.

Alaska has more black, brown/grizzly bears and, of course, more polar bears than any other state.

Herrero and Smith looked at catalytic factors and a number of different variables to tease out their findings. Smith points to what they were able to learn by examining 647 incidents involving all three bear species.

“Interestingly, in over 125 years of records we have found only eight polar bear incidents,” he observed. “That says something about the reluctance to engage or conflict with humans. Yes, polar bears are often labeled ‘stalker-killers’ of man.”

He asks, “Do you think they’ve earned the title? I certainly do not, though a few incidents have occurred.”

In terms of how often a certain species is involved in conflicts with people, it breaks down this way: brown/grizzly bears account for 84 percent; black bears 14 percent and polar bears 2 percent.

Some other take-homes:

• Incidents involving carcass-defending bears are highest in spring, a time when they would expect bears to be feeding on the remains of animals that died during the previous winter.
• In just 8 percent of all encounters examined, bears appeared to perceive the humans as food “and were attempting to procure them as such.”

Even though black bears outnumber grizzlies three to one in and around Alaska’s largest human population centers of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, they are not nearly as aggressive as brown/grizzly bears whose aggressiveness and temperaments leave them sometimes confronting people the same way they would other bears perceived to be a threat.

Four years ago, Smith and some colleagues made headlines when they released the findings of another study saying that using a gun in bear encounters leaves you no safer. He told me that in close quarters where most surprise run-ins with grizzlies occur, pepper spray has proven its effectiveness, so long as it’s ready to be quickly deployed.

In Alaska, an “increase in bear encounters closely parallels the increase in human population over time. In fact, the correlation between the two is very high.”

They surmise, however, that even though the number of people in the bush has declined, that increasing conflict is owed to a rising surge of outdoor recreation in all its forms.

Some 51 percent of attacks were over in less than three minutes and 79 percent were over in less than 10 minutes. Although some attacks lasted longer because victims tried to fight the bear and did not submit, occasionally, they said, putting up resistance is the only way to save your life.

A huge number of attacks happened not at night but between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “Contrary to commonly held believes, bears are rarely skulking around at night and getting into trouble with people,” they write. “The late afternoon peak likely reflects the increasing activity bears generally exhibit that time of day as well as humans who also are out in numbers.”

When I spoke with Smith over the phone, I asked him what’s the number one thing he recommends besides being alert, vigilant and aware of the terrain you’re moving through?

“Carry bear spray,” he says. “It’s been a game changer in reducing injuries to people and it has saved the lives of bears. But like everything you need to know how to use it.”

EBS publishes Todd Wilkinson’s “New West” column every other Friday, and online weekly. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 amazing photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen. The book is only available at and when you order today you will receive a copy autographed by both author and photographer. Wilkinson also wrote a profile of Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk for the summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.

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