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Bear Attack Facts

Bear Attack Facts by Kevin Gardner
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Black bear peering through branches

Black bears attacks on humans may be far fewer but tend be be more predatory

Bear! The word brings all within earshot to attention. Adrenaline begins to force heavy breathing and suddenly there is a dull and almost unnoticeable ringing that begins in the inner ear. Every available sense becomes heightened simultaneously and a gut wrenching feeling of vulnerability clouds the ability to reason. The illusion of weightlessness and slow motion dominate reality, then suddenly, eye contact.

This opening account of feelings and sensations were not solely my own experiences, but a combination of those described by others who have been attacked, as well as my own reflection upon my personal physical contact with a bruin.

Immediate credibility is given to the exclamation “Bear”. If ever you have been in the outdoors and someone has yelled it, you know what I mean. It never seems to be doubted or second-guessed when heard. The word “bomb” on a crowded bus will bring a slower sensational reaction than the word “bear” commands in an outdoor environment. Why? Have we somehow learned to anticipate or associate a bad experience with the word? It appears so.

Of all bear encounters that occur, only a fraction ever surpass a casual acknowledgment from the animal, and often find a sudden retreat by both human and bear to a safer distance. Is this always the case? Of course not. There are the very rare occasions where an encounter goes drastically or fatally wrong.

What causes this occasional reaction of bad intent to occur? What is the deciding factor? At what moment is a decision made to aggress, as opposed to retreat, or even tolerate? What is the “Common Denominator” in all bear attacks?

In 1998, that question prompted a major outdoor organization to solicit assistance in the production of an educational video, intended to educate outfitters in the Teton Wilderness area of Wyoming. I was engaged to find the “common denominator” based on interview and/ or investigation into known bear attacks. What does a bear do, or not do, in every attack sequence, without fail? Good question.

The final count was 109 incidents. Incidents being occasions where there was anything from minimal contact between bear and human, to a full-blown attack that ended in a fatality. Fact of the matter is, almost every contact incident ends in a fatality, either human or the dispatching of the bear. (Some days you’re the peacock and some days you’re the feather duster.) This project would require direct contact not only with Government Agencies, but also with the victims themselves.

Like all victim storytellers, some were very descriptive and articulate about their experiences, while others, wanted to say only what had to be said. They wanted to completely answer a question without having to relive what has taken years of therapy to help erase.

grizzly bear in grass

Grizzly bear on the alert in tall grass

It is again, those opening feelings I found, that initiate a numbing sensation that makes a very bad situation survivable in a very brutal encounter with a bear. I was given those same accounts over and over again as I made my way through the various survivors with which I was able to contact. Since finding bear attack survivors is equivalent to finding survivors of the Titanic, the challenge was immense. Nonetheless, an intriguing one.

For two and a half years this study went on. A never-ending process of soliciting Park Service personnel for incident reports, calling contacts in cities and small towns to aid in locating victims, and speaking with Wildlife Managers and biologists. In some cases there were even opportunities to speak with Anthropologists about animal remains and functional disorders, all part of the process of getting down to why bears attack.

There was also a great deal of step by step, walking a victim through the events of the day of the attack, and occasionally the day before, trying to get an accurate assessment of what caused the event (Some victims had actually been being stalked for more than a day). Additionally there was reviewing remotely and, when possible, visiting actual sites of the incidents. Trying to put together a puzzle of events and rationalizations that brought about a life changing few moments in time.

All of these pieces of information were constantly weaving together a new theory, then another, then another. When twice you would hear a sequence or see a sign of similarity in multiple cases, the next would poke a hole in the bubble and add uniqueness. There seemed to truly be no “common denominator”.

The entire project that seemed to consume an undeterminably large amount of time, money and effort finally proved to be “inconclusive”. The “common denominator” theory did not hold water. However, there were key learnings involved that are certainly worth repeating, and which have made the time and effort a worthwhile venture that can be shared as what I consider to be a ‘greatest of life’ adventure.

With this in mind, I give to you some of the key findings of two and a half years of research. I can be used as a simple guideline to dispel some myth and shed some light on little known facts about bears. I think it will take a minimum of imagination to be able to figure out how many of these lessons were learned the harshest of ways.

While no individual aspect here is completely foolproof, some consistencies surfaced and were deemed noteworthy. Please make a note if you are planning to spend time in the outdoors where you may encounter bear country. Also remember it is springtime and the bears are emerging from their dens again.

Big brown bear

Understanding how a bear perceives aggression may help prevent an attack

* Bear Country – By definition, if you’re in the outdoors, you’re in bear country. They can inhabit, even if only briefly, most any habitat.
* Bears have been clocked at 35 mph over rough terrain for moderate distances.
* Bears can run downhill.
* While bears may have comparatively poorer eyesight than other animals, they are not that bad off.
* A bear’s sense of smell is truly his keenest sense and they can smell your bagged garbage well inside of your secured home. Polar Bears have been observed tracking seals at as far as twenty miles away.
* Grizzly bears, while anatomically are not built to climb trees naturally, can climb trees. * Black Bears are skilled climbers.
* Bear Pepper Spray is not as effective on Black Bears as it is on Grizzly.
* While referred to as “Bear Repellent”, it is meant to be sprayed at an approaching bear and not on one’s self or children as a preventative measure.
* Expended Bear Spray contents can act as an attractant after use and a used can should then be treated as a food source and stored accordingly in a bear safe container.
* Black Bear attacks, while only a small amount of all attacks by bears, tend to be predatory in nature. If attacked by a Black Bear, the intent is often to feed.
* Grizzlies seem to only want to neutralize the perceived threat. This information is invaluable immediately following an attack as a grizzly will watch a victim and movement by that victim constitutes more threat.
* Eye contact is a threatening posture to bears. Avoid it.
* Bears are capable of lifting a full-grown man completely off of the ground and shaking him like a rag doll.
* Bears tend to bite about the head and extremities of victims first. In the bears mind, these are the parts that can make noise or hurt the animal.
* When examining a suspected kill by a bear (wild or domestic), it is often noted that the bear feeds on the soft internal organs first.
* Hibernation can end a lot quicker than one might expect.
* A bear’s paw pad may shed during hibernation and when the bear emerges in the spring, may be tender, causing the animal to limp or be aggitated.
* For all intents and purposes, Brown Bears are Grizzlies.
* Not all brown bears are grizzlies.
* There are four primary reasons bears attack people.
1) Defense or protection of young.
2) Defense or protection of a food source.
3) Because they have been surprised.
4) A person has been identified as a threat (e.g. blocking an escape route) or as a possible food source.
* A majority of bear attacks occur involving a sub-adult bear.
* If a bear appears to have long legs, it is often a younger bear.
* A bear’s gestation period is 9 months, however the egg lies dormant for most of that time.
* Male bears have been known to kill and eat young bears, even those of their own, and are rarely accepted by females at times other than during mating.
* A strong food source (e.g. a salmon run) will hold bears in an area and they will tolerate each other for this purpose.
* When bears are seen on an almost nightly basis in the same location, they are likely very close at hand during daylight hours, even though they are not visible.
* Bears will feed on a food source until the point of regurgitating, then continue to feed, often sleeping right on the food source.
* Bears can learn to identify a gunshot as a signal to a potential food source and will investigate it.
* Warning gunshots rarely have an affect on bears.
* A bear’s personality is best described as explosive with a lacking perception of reality.
* Bears are calculating and opportunistic animals.
* Bears have been known to travel as far as 30 miles in a single night.
* Bears really have no definitive home range. Again, while none of these statements are 100% fact at all times, they are some of the more common conceptions that have been found to have flaws or are repeated events that seem to hold true.

In conclusion, it is advisable to educate yourself and those who accompany you into the outdoors as to how to deal with a bear confrontation. A great deal of research and work continues to be done to create a mutually safe environment for both bears and people. Keep a safe distance and let the bear know you are there, and that you are human. More times than not you will avoid a very potentially ugly situation where someone ultimately loses.

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