"You Are in Bear Country"

Close encounters of the bear-human kind are skyrocketing, though actual attacks remain few and far between. Hopefully, new outreach education efforts will keep things that way.

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

LATE LAST MAY, Glenda Ann Bradley, a 50-year-old fourth-grade teacher from Cosby, Tennessee, and her former husband, Ralph Hill, drove to a trailhead in the Tennessee portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The couple, who were reconciling, hiked in for a few miles, and then Hill went down to the Little River to fish while Bradley read beside the trail. He returned two hours later only to find her daypack, which contained food, lying untouched on the path and her lifeless body about 70 yards away, with two black bears—a 110-pound adult female and a 40-pound female yearling—hovering over it. Hill and other hikers tried to get them away from the body, but it took two park rangers—and 19 rounds from their pistols—to do it. An autopsy later revealed that Bradley died from blood loss, and necropsies on the bears suggested that both had fed on her. It was the first-ever fatal bear mauling in the Smokies— indeed, in any of the southeastern national parks.

Just over a month later, around 9 a.m. on July 2, Mary-Beth Miller, a 24-year-old Canadian biathlete who was training to make the national women's team, went jogging alone at the Myriam Bédard Biathlon Centre, located on a Canadian army base just north of Quebec City. She was wearing headphones, so she may not have heard her attacker, which rushed at her from the side, throwing her to the ground and biting and clawing at her head and neck. It appears Miller escaped for a moment but fell, brought down again. A military search party found her body on the trail around midnight. Four days later her killer was trapped and killed: a 165-pound female black bear with traces of mother's milk in its fur. Investigators later speculated that the bear may have been distraught over a missing cub.

TWO WOMEN killed by black bears, within six weeks of each other, without any apparent provocation. Though the incidents are tragic and disturbing, there's no need to panic. There are perhaps three-quarters of a million black bears in North America, but fatal attacks are exceedingly rare—on average, only about three people die every year from injuries caused by grizzlies or black bears, says Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance and North America's leading authority on the subject. Minnesota's North American Bear Center knows of only 43 people who were killed by black bears in North America during the 20th century. Still, as hikers, climbers, and canoeists fan out across the backcountry this spring—just as hungry black bears emerge from hibernation—they will do well to arm themselves with recent research on ursine behavior. And hey, a few cans of pepper spray couldn't hurt.

While the number of actual attacks has remained roughly consistent year to year, complaints about nuisance bears have skyrocketed. In New Jersey, home to over eight million people and about 2,000 bears, the number of complaints rose from 285 in 1995 to 1,659 in 1999. There, as in many other states, suburbanites moving into new developments in previously rural areas have discovered that their new neighbors have a poorly developed appreciation for private property and will invite themselves to barbecues, jump through windows, eat pets, and kill fawns in the yard. "We're not talking warm and fuzzy here," one disgruntled resident told The New York Times.

With grizzlies limited in the Lower 48 to remote stretches of the northern Rockies and the inland mountains of the Northwest, most complaints in the Lower 48 involve black bears, and most are fairly inconsequential to humans, if drastically consequential to bears. Last June, police in Albany, New York, shot a 436-pound black bear after it "approached" a jogger; a month earlier, a teenage Boy Scout in a sleeping bag was shoved off a bench by a bear at a campground in New Jersey. In a string of three separate incidents in July, four Scouts and two adult campers were scratched and bitten at New Mexico's Philmont Scout Ranch by black bears starving due to drought. (Two of the animals were shot, the third escaped.) Last June, in Glacier's first black bear attack since 1978, Jason Sansom, an Air Force lieutenant hiking in the park with his wife, was caught and bitten by a black bear. After playing dead for 15 minutes, Sansom decided that "it was either do something or die." He beat the animal away with his keys, escaping with bruised ribs and minor wounds.

Clearly, there's a fine line between nuisance and tragedy when it comes to bears, so wildlife agencies across the country are stepping up efforts to stop people from feeding bears, inadvertently or on purpose. A couple of years ago, the town of Snowmass, Colorado, mandated bear-proof trash containers to discourage curious local bruins, says Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury. "If people want to have wildlife," he says, "they have to learn to live with it."

Of course, there's more wildlife to live with in some areas than others. In the sixties, the Smoky Mountains had about 300 black bears. Now the region boasts 1,500—the result, in part, of several years of good acorn crops, according to Mike Pelton, professor emeritus of wildlife science at the University of Tennessee. The black bear population in the southern Appalachians exploded in the early nineties, says Pelton, former head of the world's longest-running bear study. "It's higher than we've ever seen it." Pelton and his team had previously trapped and tagged the bear that killed Glenda Ann Bradley, which had shown no prior nuisance behavior, and Pelton served on the National Park Service inquiry that looked into Bradley's death. The inquest found that Bradley's biggest mistake may have been to run from the bears; once she did that, according to Jason Houck, the park's laconic chief ranger, the animals "plotted an intercept course, took her down, and fatally mauled her." For that reason, Pelton was dismayed to hear one question repeatedly posed by the public in the uproar following Bradley's death: If a bear attacks, aren't you supposed to play dead? Experts say that's exactly the wrong thing to do with black bears; instead, they recommend fighting back with sticks or rocks while backing away. Similarly, running from any bear is not a good idea.

Perhaps the most essential piece of knowledge is that serious black bear attacks are almost always predacious. While grizzlies will attack to defend cubs, their territory, or a carcass they're feeding on, black bears are probably more interested in food, the intended meal being you. Since many day hikers think of black bears as relatively harmless, John Hechtel, a bear biologist in Canada's Yukon Territory, is producing a new video in partnership with the International Association for Bear Research and Management, Staying Safe in Bear Country, to be distributed in the coming months to national parks. The video aims to teach the public sophisticated tactical advice to replace the old—and misleading—adage, "If it's brown, lie down; if it's black, fight back." (In addition to the tips above, for example, campers should avoid areas where bears are habituated to human food and not trust that a black bear won't be brown in color.)

Hechtel allows that attacks are complex, often ambiguous events: "You can't do science on bear attacks. You can't roll back the film of a mauling and say, 'This time, don't shout, don't wave your arms.'" But given how incredibly tolerant black bears really are, Hechtel says, it was hard to find footage of aggressive behavior. His ultimate advice is to put the horror stories in perspective and realize that bears "are a lot more like dogs than like some kind of mythological critters who are out there waiting to kick human butt."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!