|How dangerous are bears?
That's like asking how dangerous automobiles are. Bears and vehicles can both be fun; or both could injure or kill you. None of
those things could happen if you don't encounter a bear. So attack risk has two components: (a) probability that you will have an
encounter where the bear is aware of you, and (b) probability that it will assault you during the encounter. That in turn depends on
the circumstance of the encounter. Is it early summer while bears are focused on competing for mates and social status? Is it in
the middle of a salmon run? Is it late September or early October when bears are frantically cramming in calories just before they
hibernate? Those and other circumstances can govern how readily a bear tolerates your presence, and whether any intolerance
takes the form of fleeing from you, or trying to drive you away. Your behavior during the encounter can also be important.
What are the major factors govern your risk of being injured by a bear?
Risk refers to probability, which is expressed as a percentage (e.g., 50% or in decimal form e.g., 0.50 or a ratio e.g., 50:50).
Risk of being injured by a bear equals your probability (abbreviated p%) of encountering a bear multiplied by your probability of
being injured during the encounter. This expressed as an equation: p%I = p%E*%pI/E
What is an "Encounter"?
An encounter occurs any time that you are so close to a bear that it detects you and responds to you, perhaps by avoiding you
(e.g., by fleeing or hiding), approaching you, or following you. Even bears that mean you no harm may approach or follow you out
Probability of Encountering a Bear
- Precautions you can take to help avoid unwanted encounters:
a. Stay away from places where encounters are likely. Even people who view bears don't necessarily want to
encounter them any place but at a viewing site. For example, when you want to camp, stay at least 500 yards for
any salmon stream or other site where bears are likely to feed, and from any trail on which a bear is likely to travel.
Bears sometimes walk along streams, lake shores or beaches looking for foods other than salmon; or they walk
down roads, trails built for humans, or game trails.
b. Help bears detect you from afar, so that they can avoid you if they want to.
* Sounds: Making noise,
* Sights: wearing brightly colored clothing, remaining in areas where you are visible from at least 300 yards,
* Scents: have a distinctive odor that bears can associate with friendly humans, but not other people.
c. Detect bears from afar, preferably before they detect you. Listen, Look and Sniff
a. Learn the habitats bears tend to use in your area. In particular, what are the major foods they eat at that time of year,
- Means of finding bears to view them
and where are such foods located?
b. Learn how to safely approach such sites, then later withdraw from them.
(People commonly take precautions while approaching a viewing site, but not while leaving one.)
Probability of Being Injured During An Encounter
Encounter risk is essentially zero when you view from a:
- boat at a site like Wolverine Creek in Alaska
- floating observatory like some used at Knight Inlet in BC.
- high platform – not only might a bear have difficulty climbing to reach you, but bears are very rarely inclined to try. People
on elevated platforms are usually ignored.
No one has ever been injured by a bear while led by a guide certified by the Bear Viewing Association
Danger peaks when you surprise a grizzly bear at close range, especially if the bear can't flee or won't flee. That sometimes
happens with (a) a mother grizzly who is so close that she doesn't dare turn her back on you to flee; or (b) with a mother whose
cubs are so small or weak that they can't flee well; or with a grizzly of any age or sex that is defending carrion that it can't carry
away and won't abandon to you.
Surprises are most likely if the bear hasn't detected you at a distance of at least a few hundred yards -- which happens if you
are bushwacking through dense vegetation where bears can't see you from afar, especially if noise from running water, rain or
wind cover any noise you make, and wind currents prevent a bear from detecting your scent , or prevent the bear from detecting
How commonly are people mauled by a bear?
- Black bears: North America has nearly 1 million black bears. Their habitat is shared with tens of millions of people. Yet,
since 1900, black bears have killed fewer than 60 people – i.e., roughly 1 every other year. They apparently have seriously
injured fewer than 100 – i.e,. about 1 per year. So, on average, your odds of serious injury if you meet a black bear are
infinitesimal, especially if you follow basic safety precautions. There is greater risk of minor injury, but even that risk is
negligible if you are cautious.
- Brown/grizzly bears: North American has roughly 60,000 grizzly/brown bears. Their habitat is shared by millions of
people. Yet, since 1900, they have seriously injured or killed only a few hundred people – i.e., about 3 per year, on
average. Although risk is much higher with a grizzly/brown bear, it is still tiny if you follow reasonable precautions.
- Polar bears: Since 1900, no more than 10-15 people are known to have been killed or seriously mauled by a polar bear.
Uncertainty about the number stems from sketchiness of records through the first half of the 20th century. If a lone hunter
on the sea ice disappears, who is to know whether the person got lost in a blizzard, fell through the ice or was killed by a
bear? Unexplained disappearances have been less likely in recent decades, during which no more than 5 people are
known to have been killed or seriously mauled. One reason that this number is so low is that this continent’s 10,000 polar
bears have historically spent most of their life offshore, on sea ice where they seldom encounter humans – and then
mainly Natives that were alone or in small groups. Furthermore, the number of people sharing polar bear habitat
numbers in the thousands, not millions. Most confrontations occur when polar bears visit Arctic communities, or whale
carcasses that Natives are butchering. The Inuit and Inupiat Native peoples of the North American Arctic are skilled at
coexisting with polar bears – and at killing those they can’t coexist with.
Why do bears sometimes injure people? What motivates their aggression?
Competition: Bears of all species may compete with humans for food or less often for space or dominance.
Food is the most common target of competition.
- Food competition usually occurs when bears are lured close to someone’s home, yard or camp by the odor of groceries,
garbage, crops, livestock, feed for livestock or pets, or petroleum products (e.g., AvGas or plastic). If a bear finds a treat
that is unattended, it may claim the treat, then defend it against any human who happens by. Or, if the treat is attended by a
human, the bear may try driving the person away so that it can claim the treat. In these cases, risk of mauling tends to be
lowest with black bears, then progressively higher with polar bears, coastal brown bears, and interior grizzly bears. Bears
rarely mistake a person as a rival for their mate.
- Site competition usually occurs when humans visit bear country and crowd too close to a bear – for instance a bear that
does not retreat from the intruders. This is most common where the bear declines to abandon a site where it is fishing or
feeding on the carcass of a large mammal such as a moose, seal or whale. A person might want to fish at that same spot.
- Space competition usually occurs when someone crowds a bear, for instance to take a close up photo, to touch the bear,
or to feed it by hand.
- Dominance rivalry: When bears confront one another over food or space, this is linked to rank competition. Rank
determines which bear abandons the resource in favor of its rival. When two strangers encounter one another, for
instance when they approach from opposite directions along a trail, they may either pass one another politely; or they
might threaten one another or even fight for a few seconds to determine who has right of way. Humans encountered on a
trail may be treated the same way: given an opportunity to politely pass by, or to fight. Bears rarely harm people during
such encounters. In fact, it is mainly subadults that try dominating humans. Not only are subadults (like human
teenagers) very eager to test themselves against opponents, but humans are more likely to stand up to subadults than to
Predation: Bears seldom attempt to prey on humans.
- Polar bears: are suspected of being most predatory on people because they are the most predatory on other mammals.
That is, polar bears eat almost nothing except the meat of large mammals – nearly all of which are marine mammals.
However, since 1900, only 2 people are known to have been killed and eaten by a polar bear.
- Black bears: almost never kill anyone to protect themselves or their cubs, or in competition with people over food or other
resources. Rather, on the rare occasions when a black bear does kill someone, it was likely trying to kill and eat the
- Grizzly/brown bears: On a per-bear basis, grizzly/brown bears are about twice as likely as a black bear to trying preying on
someone – where as they are hundreds of times more likely to violently defend themselves or their cubs.
Protecting itself or its cubs against an apparent enemy:
sport-hunters are. However, bears that spend time around benign people can learn to trust that we won't harm them..
- Bears – especially mothers with cubs to protect – tend to treat people like predators, which is essentially what
* Crowd it too closely, or
- Bears are most likely to see you as an enemy if you
* Surprise it at close range,
* Threaten it
* Cause it pain
- Bears of all species usually protect themselves by hiding from us or by running away. However, they
occasionally resort to violence against us.
* Black bears: protecting themselves or their cubs seldom inflict more than minor injuries, comparable to those inflicted
* Coastal brown bears: are more likely to protect themselves violently. Because they tend to be much bigger and
strong than black bears, they tend to do more damage.
* Grizzly bears: tend to be fiercer than their coastal cousins. They are the most likely of bears to protect themselves
violently, and are the leading culprits in serious or fatal bear maulings.
* Polar bears: have apparently not killed anyone while defending themselves or their cubs. If they have seriously injured
anyone, it was probably someone hunting them.
How common are minor injuries?
These occur mainly when someone tries to feed a bear by hand or to touch it, or of you happen to be within 5 yards of a bear when
something else frightens it. A frightened bear might strike out at you reflexively just to make sure you don't hurt it. Or the bear
might panic and while fleeing from some other apparent danger, end up running toward you, or even brush you aside or knock you
down as it passes. Try not to get between bears and their escape route -- e.g., down a trail or into dense brush.
Are grizzly/brown bears fiercer than black bears?
Compared to a black bear, a grizzly/brown bear is about 2X as likely to be predatory, and several times as likely to be violently
competitive, and hundreds of times more likely to be violently protective. However, with proper precautions, even brown bears can
be safely viewed at photographic distances (e.g. under 100 yards). There are very few circumstances where you could safely view
a grizzly from closer than a few hundred yards.
How much danger are people in while hiking, fishing, camping or hunting?
- Proper precautions can minimize risk of encountering a bear during each of those activities.
- With proper techniques you can minimize risk of being injured when you do encounter a bear.
How can I minimize my risk during an encounter?
- Novices: Remain within arm’s length of at least 5 other people. Remain calm. Do nothing to provoke the bear. View with
a guide certified by the Bear Viewing Association and follow the guide’s advice. Study the following educational materials:
a. BVA text: Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual (and other books recommended at the end of Magnum).
b. BVA PowerPoint series: Bear Safety Basics
* Avoiding Encounters at Home (which includes any lodge where you might be working or visiting)
* Avoiding Unwanted Encounters in the Wilds
* Bear-Wise Hiking in Alaska
* Negotiating Close Encounters
c. Learn the Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
d International Bear Association video: Staying Safe in Bear Country
- Experienced Guides: Go back to the first page about certification and follow links to study guides for Magnum and our
other texts. Mastering those materials could qualify you for one or more safety endorsements to supplement your guide
- Other people likely to encounter a bear: Earn a Bear Secure certificate from the Bear Viewing Association. If your skills
and knowledge have important gaps, training materials and in-field training are available at nominal cost.
Should I carry a gun in bear country? What kind? How should I use it?
- A gun is needed only during an emergency – for instance if a bear is likely to attack or has begun.
- It is very hard to kill an attacking bear before it mauls someone. So master shooting skills before you venture into bear
country. Anyone who has not mastered these skills and cannot handle an appropriate weapon should instead rely on
pepper spray or another deterrent.
- Weapon and ammo suitable for killing a bear. In most emergencies you would shoot from under 50 yards. At those
distances, a 12 gauge shotgun with rifled sabot slugs is your best choice of weapon. Only the largest pistols tend to be
effective, and even then effectiveness is usually poor. Pistol bullets tend not to penetrate deeply enough, with enough force
to cripple or kill a bear, and they are harder to aim.
- Vital targets: Learn the spots on a bear’s body to aim for to kill (heart, lungs, spine) or cripple (shoulder, lower spine,
pelvis, upper arms).
- Wounding: If you just wound the bear, it may inflict more injury than if you had not done so. People who shoot bears end
up badly mauled about half the time.
- Do not shoot your partner and leave him/her for the bear.
How effective is pepper spray?
- People who blast a bear with pepper spray are almost never injured by the bear.
- Grizzly/brown bears are more repelled than black bears.
- For people not skilled and equipped with a proper firearm and ammo – including most women and nearly all children –
spray is more reliable than a gun.
- Even experts with a firearm tend to set the firearm down when not guarding or hiking. Spray can be carried on your person
even more conveniently than a pistol, and tends to be far more effective.
For further information on bear safety click here: BEAR SAFETY MANUALS