Friday, February 04, 2011

Bears: Should you be afraid?

(Grizzly rushes towards me in Alone Across Alaska.)
What are your odds of being killed by a bear? Incredibly low. So low that it's not something to worry about. What are the facts backing up that statement? Since interest, or perhaps morbid obsession, with fatal bear attacks is so high, Wikipedia actually gives a reasonably good idea of the recent numbers because people rush to list "another bear attack." According to Wikipedia, in the 2000's black bears killed 15 people in NORTH AMERICA (including Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.) Grizzlies killed 12 people during that same period, for a total of 27. For the 90's Wikipedia lists 23 fatal attacks. Dr. Stephen Herrero, a leading authority on human/bear conflicts, says 29 people were killed by bears in North America in the 1990s. In other words, less than three people are killed in North America by bears each year over the last 20 years. And that includes all the countless people in all of the most theoretically dangerous places: Yellowstone, Denali, BC, Alberta, the Yukon, Glacier.

To put things in perspective, about 2 3/4 MILLION people die each year of all causes in the U.S. and Canada. That's well over 7,000 people every day. Other causes are about ONE MILLION TIMES more likely to kill you than bears. So why are people scared of bears? Partly because every fatal bear attack gets huge news coverage. Partly because people are instinctively afraid of bears and the unknown and the unfamiliar. This article helps explain our bear fear (thanks to SouthMark on

Death Rates in the U.S. (note, these are all from recent years, mostly from 2007)
With about 16,929 murders a year in the US and Canada combined out of a total population of about 334,000,000, about 1 out of 19,625 people will be a murderer in a given year.

With about 3 fatal bear attacks per year in the US and Canada combined, and about 660,000 bears in the US and Canada total, about 1 out of 220,000 bears will be "murderers" in a given year.

In Stephen Herrero's great book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance (revised edition) he says this: Bear attacks are rare events. I told her that in North America there are an estimated six hundred thousand black bears and sixty thousand grizzly bears. Each year there are millions of times in which each species is close to people and no threat or injury results... I hate to see people's lives crippled by fear based on ignorance.

So what should you do with this information? Follow a few simple precautions and simply enjoy your trip into bear country. Trust me, you'll be fine. (Oh, and by the way, that grizzly bear in the photo rushed towards me until it smelled me, then turned and ran.)

If you like this post, I hope you'll click the "Like" button below, and spread the word! Your comments and suggestions are welcome.


Eddie Gillespie said...

Thanks for this article. I'm a hiker and do not fear bears. I respect them and act in a safe manner during the extremely rare times I encounter them on the trails. (Mostly in the GSMNP in NC and in Mt. Mitchell State Park in NC.)
I have heard MANY bears run FROM me in the GSMNP. How did I know it was bears? Because no other animals make that distinctive "bear groan", I guess you would describe it.
I even unknowingly walked up pretty close to a sow with cubs in GSMNP and wasn't threatened and am obviously not dead at the current time.
Hopefully this article will calm the really absurd fears of some people and / or the family members of people who go into the forests. All I've heard since the announcement of my plans to do a through hike of the GSMNP in March 2011 is "Take some bear spray." LOL.. I have no intention of peeing away around 60 bucks and carrying another pound of weight for such a useless can of junk.

Buck said...

Hi Eddie,

Thanks for the comment! I hope some real world facts will help calm your family.

You are right, respecting bears is smart, fearing them is unnecessary. There is no need to carry bear spray on the Appalachian Trail, that's for sure.

One place I can think of that I might carry bear spray is on some of the roadside fishing streams in Alaska where habituated brown bears hang out trying to get fish parts from nearby salmon fisherman. So far, though, I've never bought a can of bear spray.


George said...

This is more info to help me get my wife to backpack with me. She a huge bearfobic. Darn TV.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't this require a more detailed statistical analysis?

How about comparing the number of human-bear encounters that result in death compared to the number of human-human encounters that do? With 334 million people in the US and Canada, there has to a couple billion human-human encounters every day. How many human-bear encounters per day - statiscally you can round that to none.

What is the North American bee population compared to bears?

Buck said...

Hi Anonymous,

I think the "murder rate" for humans vs. bears addresses the basic point you are trying to make. On an individual basis, a random human is over 10 times more likely than a bear to kill a person on a given year. As Dr. Herrero says, there are millions of human/bear encounters per year, most of which people are unaware. If you can round those millions of encounters to zero, it seems like with 3 fatalities per year for 334,000,000 people, it would be fair to round that number to zero, also.

Even when encountering a bear, the odds of it killing you are about one out of a million. (3 fatalities/millions of encounters.)

Zoya, Patrick, Nora and Stuart said...

I live and hunt on Kodiak, and bearanoia has always been a pet peeve of mine - I even wrote a blog post about it one time. I checked into the numbers here on Kodiak and I believe that more people have been murdered by their hunting partner than killed by bears (I think 2 people have been killed by bears in the last 100 years). I only carry a rifle when hunting, and I'm not sure I'd use it on a charging bear. I've been charged a few times and they all stopped. Now if I'd shot at them would they have stopped? I do not think it is a coincidence that all the people who have been mauled or killed were carrying firearms. Patrick

Zoya, Patrick, Nora and Stuart said...

Buck, Great Post! And if you want to read my blog post about bearanoia - it was my entry from July 19, 2008 (I could hot link it here, but I'm always leery of that sort of thing in comments I get from strangers - so I assume you are too!). I titled it 'bearanoia will destroy you'. Also pepper spray is VERY effective. I once used it on a bear and It worked. Patrick

Buck said...

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for your posts. Very interesting points you made. People reading what you said should note that you live on Kodiak Island, land of the largest bears in the world.

Here is a link to your blog post, which is well worth reading.

Thanks again!


Zoya, Patrick, Nora and Stuart said...

Buck I saw the uproar your post caused on the AK hunting forum. You got the same reaction I usually get here on Kodiak when I make the same point.

But the stats are true - even if you limit it to just hunters in the field here on Kodiak - far more people drown, die of hypothermia, fall off of cliffs, get shot by a hunting buddy etc than ever get killed by bears. And most maulings are in situations were people surprise or threaten a bear. Bears do the swat/bite educate thing and keep on running (this according to the local bear biologist).

That said - I do take precautions. For instance when hunting I never return to a kill site but carry a whole animal away after butchering - and we take 5 people when we hunt elk just so we can get it all out in one load.

All that said, I did have a REALLY bad charge this Fall on Afognak when we surprised a mom and three cubs in the woods. She charged twice and got up to about 15 feet away the second time. But I was not worried about getting killed - I had a feeling I'd just get swatted. And who knows what would have happened if we'd shot at the bear. And it must be said that we only surprised the bear because we were creeping through the forest upwind looking for elk. Not what I'd normally recommend doing when hiking in bear country.


Buck said...

Good points, Patrick. It's important not to surprise bears at close range. That's probably what I'm most cautious about.

Getting the game kill out all at once is also wise. In Wyoming once were on horseback heading back to an elk kill and came around a corner to find a grizz and her cubs heading towards our horses. That made my heart pound. But I can honestly say I was more afraid of what the horses were going to do than what the bears were going to do! Luckily those horses had nerves of steel. The grizzlies immediately turned and fled.

One thing that skews people's perception somewhat, I think, is that when people shoot a bear that seems threatening it's human nature for people to assume that if the bear hadn't been killed it would have resulted in a mauling, or worse. Maybe it would have, but most likely it wouldn't have. That's something that will always be the decision of the individual, though, and it's certainly not my place to second guess individual cases if I wasn't there. I certainly believe it is someone's right to defend their own life if necessary.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I liked the article. But, you do make an error in the probabilities. You are using rates per all people for all possible risks. The reality is the denominator has to change to be only those involved in the activity. Comparing all the causes of death is apples-to-oranges the way you do it.

For example, to accurately show the probability of dying in a car accident, you should exclude the population who don't ever ride in a car.

For bear deaths, the proper rate would be to exclude all people who never venture into bear territory. When I am venturing out on a hike, what is relevant to me is the odds of getting attacked among people who go out for hikes, not among the general population which includes millions who never go outside.

Looking at it this way would probably increase your probability of a bear attack by maybe even 100 times.

Still -- the odds are really small. And, it seems to me that those that do get attacked usually do something really stupid to provoke it. As long as you are careful about your food and give them their space, there is very little risk.

Seems like the reality is that a handful of people a year will be killed by bears, and almost every one of them would have done something really stupid to provoke the attack.

You are more at risk driving to the trail than hiking!

Buck said...

Hi Anonymous 4:55,

I can see you you know something about probabilities.

You are right of course, that the odds aren't equal for all people. I don't come right out and say that, but I allude to it by phrases like "all the people in all of the most dangerous places." Like many sets of stats the "user" has to apply them sensibly to their own real-world situation.

I was debating the general issue with a grizzly bear hunting guide on another forum, and I pointed out that even for a grizzly guide, perhaps the people at highest risk of being attacked by a bear, easily thousands of times greater than the average American, the risk of dying by bear are STILL relatively low: for every grizzly guide killed or injured by bears there will be hundreds killed or seriously injured on the road, flying, in avalanches, drowning, by a poor diet etc.

As you pointed out, 100 times near zero is still near zero.

Follow the precautions in the link in the original post, and it doesn't pay to worry about bears.

HMG7 said...

Hey Buck!
Here's a story for you---
I'd given myself a 5-day AT hike excursion for my birthday, from Wallingford to S. Pomfret, Vermont, but was stopped short just after I'd reached the Cooper Shelter near the summit of Killington. Here's what happened: Having arrived at 3pm after a 9.9 mile hike from the Clarendon shelter, my feet were achy. I rested awhile but then couldn't resist that 2/10th of a mile (straight up!) on the off-trail that goes up to the summit for that gorgeous 360 view of the Green Mountains. Well----I get 100 feet from my goal, my 18-pound pack on my back, and a 4-pound fanny pack around my waist carrying all survival essentials, and decide I want to enjoy the last 100 feet without that extra 18 pounds. Against that "inner small voice of better judgement", I drop the big pack on the rocky climb just to have the freedom of scurrying up those last feet to enjoy the summit. "I'll just be five minutes, it'll be okay." Well, I revel in the view and then start exploring a bit into the woodsy areas, only to find one pile of bear scat after another. "Oh, sh---!"
I scurry back down the rocks and of course, the pack is gone, nowhere in site, 99% certain there were no hikers anywhere near that would have taken it. I was alone at the top. So my theory---Yogi Bear was on the scent trail of the gorp in my big pack, gave a big YAHOO! when Ms. Backpacker dropped the pot o' gold and then dragged it off. There went my Thermarest, sleeping bag, extra socks (and cute new lightweight hoodie my guy had bought me for my birthday for the trip!)---and his iPhone battery charger along with some other minor stuff. Arg!
So anyone out there in blog-land heading toward the Cooper Shelter, who's also planning on checking out the off-trail to the summit, would you be on the lookout for a red pack? I'd love to get that cute hoodie back!! ; ) *grin.
Reply to this blog . . .
I'm just glad my guy had Google Earth to spot me and tell me via my iPhone that I was 500 feet from the grassy ski slope and then another 1000 ft from a Killington access road! He'd met me 35 min. later with two tacos, sympathetic eyes, and tons of bear jokes to get me laughing again.
Now that's a story for the grandchildren one day!
Love and happy trekking to you, Buck, all you AT hikers out there . . .

Buck said...

Thanks for the story HMG7. There's always something new to learn, isn't there? Bears will definitely steal food if they think they can get away with it.

Waldo4me said...

I, too, know a bit about statistics. The problem with the various statements made is that no one is able to clearly identify and quantify the set. As anonymous pointed out, these "statistics" are essentially invalid. Based on everything I have read, the real answer is "we don't know". Of course, it's much more sensational (or comforting) to throw around some big numbers. Today's (7/12/11) edition of the the Cody Enterprise quotes Kerry Gunther saying that your chances of being killed by a grizzly are 1 in 3 million. That's just statistical nonsense.

I live in grizzly habitat and encounter them quite often. So far, no problems and I'd estimate I've been close to about 40. According to Kerry I have 2,999,960 to go!

All in all, a good article and I agree with the basic premise. But, telling the truth would be a better idea.

Buck said...


All in all, a good article and I agree with the basic premise. But, telling the truth would be a better idea.

Your statement seems contradictory. What exactly is the truth?

It seems to me that we can either evaluate risk by our general impressions based on what we've heard or what we've experienced or how we feel, or we can attempt to quantify the risk with some real world numbers. That's what I've attempted to do. People often argue against statistics when they don't like what the numbers show. I am amazed at how resistant people are to applying numbers to the risk from bears.

Take this quote: "If he is a smoker, the odds for a 50-year-old man [dying of cancer] more than quadruple, to 21 out of 1,000."

Now I could argue that it's a misleading stat that doesn't apply directly to an individual. Some people are more genetically inclined to get cancer, some may live in heavy radon areas, etc. However, the gist of the statistic is that smoking is relatively dangerous.

You can parse it out any way you want and focus on one tree and ignore the forest, or you can see my stats for what they are, a rough way to illustrate that the risk from bears is relatively low. About one out of 100 MILLION people die from bear attack on this continent in an average year. You might think that that statistic is meaningless. I don't.

Waldo4me said...

Take this quote: "If he is a smoker, the odds for a 50-year-old man [dying of cancer] more than quadruple, to 21 out of 1,000."

That's exactly the point. Your risk of lung cancer is elevated if you smoke. If you go through life not smoking the statistic doesn't apply.

Now, I've lived within an hour or so of YNP all my life and I've hiked thousands of miles through the park. On any given day there are thousands of people at Fishing Bridge, Old Faithful et al and, there is hardly anyone on the back country trails. Since guessing seems to be OK, I'll guess more than 95% of the people who visit YNP never leave the asphalt road or a developed attraction. What do you think?

So, let's suppose of the 3 million annual visitors, maybe 150,000 get into the backcountry. You might think that would be 150,000 to 1 odds. It's not. The interactions are measured factorially not arithmetically. I'd say it would be in the neighborhood of 30,000 to 1. To measure the chances of a bear encounter or fatality based on the total number of visitors to the park is invalid, unreasonable and simply not true. You can take all the potshots at me you want but it won't change the math.

Once again, I'm on your side. The chances of a bear encounter are very slim. It just seems to me that we'd all be better served by presenting facts not made up statistics.

I'm done. You can have the last word.

Buck said...

Waldo, the sources of my stats are cited.

My point about smoking is perfectly valid. If you smoke your odds of dying from smoking are high. If you venture into bear country your odds of dying from bears are extremely low. If you never encounter smoke or never go into bear country stats applying to either don't apply. It doesn't make them meaningless.

Using your made up statistic(!) of 150,000 backcountry visits for Yellowstone per year with one fatality in the last 25 years, that's 3,750,000 backcountry Yellowstone visits with one fatality.

Of the six fatal Yellowstone bear attacks in recorded history that I can find, 2 were in the frontcountry, so your insinuation that only the backcountry visitors are at risk is incorrect.

I live in grizzly bear country too and have encountered many bears, scores if not hundreds (I believe it was 17 in two days last year) here and in Yellowstone. My odds of being killed by a bear are not zero, but they are near zero.

The odds absolutely vary, affected by innumerable factors that are impossible to nail down accurately. In a case like that common sense tells me to step back and take a look at the big picture. To me the big picture says that I should be aware of bears but don't worry about them even though I'm subject to a dramatically higher risk than the average American.

The degree of stress and worry that people expend towards bears is unwarranted by the facts.

Anonymous said...

As was mentioned early on, you have a much better chance of being killed by another human. Statistically, according to the last figures I saw a few years ago, merely displaying a firearm is sufficient to cause over 80 percent of aggressive humans to back off, even if an assault is in progress. It's still a more or less free country so take whatever chances you like. My choice is to go armed.

Anonymous said...

I love hiking, but am a bear-aphobe to the point where it does cripple me. Black bears don't bother me, it's the grizz that really really scare me. They seem to be agressive, and will protect cubs. I understand my phobia is irrational, but it is real and would love to overcome it. Everything in this article is true and there is nothing I can do to convince myself. I will wear bells, hike in groups, even carry bear spray, but still it doesn't ease the pain.
Please someone out there, do you have any suggestions for lowering the phobia?

Buck said...

Anonymous, First of all thanks for being rational about the actual odds! Nearly all of us have an irrational level of fear for certain things. One thing I know that helps many people for their bear fear is more exposure time. Many people on the Appalachian Trail, for example, are afraid to go to sleep the first few nights and barely even think about bears a few weeks later.

Maybe someone else has more suggestions?