When I first started guiding bear-viewing tours near Ketchikan, Alaska, I wasn’t experienced enough to voice myself as an authority on how to survive a bear attack. Four years later, I’m still not.
Outside’s recent article “How to Survive a Grizzly Bear Attack” took another approach. While the article is not entirely false, it is a largely misinformed, simplistic summary of how to behave in bear country that ultimately is unfit for a how-to article.
This particular article struck a chord in me not only because I have a soft spot for bears, but because their entire existence in the lower 48 is already laced with enough controversy. With the increasing tension of where the future of the Yellowstone grizzly stands as a protected species, grizzly bears simply cannot afford to have false information spreading like cheatgrass in Lamar Valley.
Bears are cool, yes. I especially understand the allure. But this is a topic that must be tread with care. Grizzlies are a largely misunderstood and misrepresented species. To state that their growing numbers are the cause of increased human-bear conflicts is only part of the story.
As the Yellowstone grizzly population has rebounded from less than an estimated 150 in 1974 to over 700 today, their range has increased outside public and protected lands. In the same time frame, human territory has spread significantly as well, limiting the spaces grizzlies can roam without encountering us. The issue is not them moving into our territory, it’s us moving into theirs.
One of the most significant factors in allowing the grizzly population to rebound was the innovation of a non-lethal, effective deterrent: bear spray. Wes Siler, author of the Outside piece states, “My takeaway from spending most of an afternoon trying to hit a moving target with the inert spray was that most of us probably place way too much trust in bear spray.” But decades-long studies prove otherwise.
Bear spray is actually incredibly effective when used correctly. Outside said it themselves in 2012. A 21-year study released in 2008 by Stephen Herrero and Tom S. Smith, two of North America’s leading bear behavior specialists, found that bear spray is 92 percent effective, leaving 98 percent of users uninjured after a close encounter. While firearms have their advantages, bear spray doesn’t require you to be an expert in aiming because it covers a large area, or at least, larger than a bullet.
“The spray isn’t brains in a can,” says Dr. Stephen French, a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear researcher, in Stephen Herrero’s book Bear Attacks, a 282-page “how-to” for understanding bear behavior. “Carrying pepper spray is not a substitute for the normal precautions when traveling or camping in bear country,” Herrero adds.
In general, most bears show an incredible tolerance to humans. They sense our presence but they want nothing to do with us. As far as attacks are concerned, the most crucial elements to learn are what type of attack it is—defensive or non-defensive, whether it’s a black or brown bear, and to become familiar with their track and sign.
Their power is something that needs to be taken into consideration with their tolerance. In Yellowstone National Park, where five million visitors flock annually, there is an average of one attack per year. “Most grizzly bears avoid direct contact with people and are much more interested in food than in trouble,” writes Herrero. There are about 266 other species grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would prefer to eat rather than you.
I spent dedicated years in the field guiding people to see wild bears, living in pockets of the West where locals still encounter them on a daily basis. I watched tourists’ fear turn into admiration that grew into respect. As Siler admits he just moved to Bozeman last year, I understand that being in grizzly territory is still something to be both excited about and fearful of, worn almost like a badge of honor. But there is a depth of understanding and responsibility that comes from years of crossing paths with bears that two days with habituated ones and a few hours on the internet does not and cannot offer. Where lives of both the two- and four-legged variety are involved, it’s best to leave the advice up to the experts. Our mistakes, be it in the field or on paper, have far more grave consequences for grizzlies than they do for humans.
In the age of instant gratification, we need to admit that there are certain things we cannot hack as a species, that there are things beyond our control. But the fact that there are still things that exist that are so much bigger than us is why we move to and fight for the places that hold them at all.
I cannot tell you how to survive a bear attack. I can tell you the necessary precautions and hope you have the sense to take them. I can tell you to travel in a group, to make sure everyone in your group has their own canister of bear spray, to store your food far away from where you sleep, not to run, and to use your wits and your voice. I can tell you how to tell the difference between a black and grizzly bear and the most appropriate responses if either of them attacks. But I cannot tell you how to survive a bear attack. There is no hack, no shortcut, and no quick how-to understand bear behavior.
But isn’t it so great that we still have something so much more powerful and more substantial than us to put us in our place, to check our humility, and ignite our sense of wonder?
Now is a time to not portray ourselves as the victim of bears or bears as the problem. It is a time to promote their value as a species and protector of our last wild places.