Popular culture is filled with images of ferocious bears chasing and predating on humans. The very sight of a bear is enough to fill many people with fear. A 500-pound giant predator with superhuman speed and strength attacking someone is the stuff of nightmares. Stories of bear attacks are always extremely popular. The worse the attack is the more people want to learn about it. It’s a strange fascination we have with these charismatic megafauna.
Popular media and myths aside, let’s talk about how dangerous bears are to humans.
Odds of Being Attacked By A Bear
According to National Geographic, the odds of being attacked by a bear are 1 in 2.1 million. I apologize for linking to the anti-hunting organization that is Nat Geo, but the stats help illustrate my point: You are more likely to be killed by bees, murdered, struck by lightning (1 in 700,000), killed by the death penalty, killed by a dog, and hundreds of other things than ever being attacked by a bear, let alone killed by one. Now, obviously, as your activities in bear country increase those odds increase, but only slightly. Humans have spent hundreds of millions of hours in bear habitat over the past 100 years and only 165 people have been killed by any bear in the US since 1900.
Why Do Bear Attacks Occur
In his 1985 book, “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” Stephen Herrero studied and analyzed every bear attack record available from 1900-1985. He looked closely at the circumstances surrounding the attacks, the severity of the attack, and probable causes of the attack. While 30 years old, the book still offers some interesting insights. For one, Grizzly bears rarely see humans as food. Most of the Grizzly bear attacks are caused by a mother bear protecting her cubs or a bear who is startled. Black bears are more likely to view humans as food and attempt to eat the person after the attack, but this is extremely rare for any bear.
One of the constants throughout attacks by Grizzly and Black bears is the presence of food. People who are cooking on or near their tent or storing food in their tent are much more likely to be attacked. Another constant is that bears who gain access to human food often become bolder getting closer and closer to people. Eventually, these bears either attack someone or are euthanized when they become dangerous. The saying “a fed bear is a dead bear” is very accurate. A bear who learns to associate people with food and then becomes used to being around humans is a disaster waiting to happen.
How To Stay Safe In Bear Country
Prevention is the best strategy to remain safe in bear country. While bear attacks are exceedingly rare, your chances increase by doing stupid things in bear country. Keep food at least 100 yards from your tent when possible. Store it in a bear locker or on a bear pole. If the campsite does not contain either of these you will need to hang your food in a tree. Keeping food in your car works in many places, however, in some areas of the country bears have learned to break into cars to get food so it will depend on where you are. In general, you will want to be cautious of anything scented. Deodorant, toothpaste, cologne, and bug spray are all scents that could attract unwanted attention from a bear. Keep your scent profile to a minimum.
Carry bear spray. The debate rages on as to whether or not bear spray or a pistol is the best defense against a bear attack. Current research suggests that bear spray is more effective for most people. A bear can run towards you at speeds reaching 30 mph. If you have ever tried to fire a pistol at a moving target you know how hard it is. Add to this the massive adrenaline dump that will occur in a bear attack and you are unlikely to get more than one shot off before the bear is on you. Also, there is no pistol known to man that will stop a bear with one shot. Even Smith and Wesson 50 caliber is not enough to put a bear down instantly. DNR officers and government employees working in bear country carry 12 gauge shotguns loaded with slugs for a reason. So odds are your pistol will not even hit the bear and if it does it may just anger the bear. Bear spray will not be viewed by the bear as an attack. It will likely not know what just happened. The idea is to make the bear uncomfortable enough that it leaves without thinking it is in a violent encounter. If you shoot a bear and do not kill it, the bear will know you injured it and become enraged.
We do not need to carry an irrational fear of bears when we enter the woods. Taking some common-sense measures to prevent an encounter will all but ensure you will avoid any problems in the first place. If a bear does attack your best bet is to use bear spray and play dead if its a grizzly. If it is a black bear and you think it is a predatory attack then you will need to fight until the bear stops its attack.
Enjoy your time in the wilderness. If you happen to see a bear consider yourself lucky, keep a safe distance, and know in advance what to do if it becomes aggressive.