I took my 12-year old son backpacking a few weeks ago, and at the trail head we ran into a man carrying a .45 on his hip. “Why do you have a gun?” my son asked. “To protect myself against bears,” the man said. When the man left, my son looked at me and asked, “That’s silly, huh Dad?” Indeed! My reply: “Well, it certainly shows he, like most people, is sadly detached from nature and uncomfortable in the mountains.”
My son has seen several grizzlies in the wild, and since he was a baby I’ve repeatedly told him, showed him and taught him that bears can be dangerous under certain circumstances, to respect bears, be humble around them, move cautiously through bear country, be alert, and give bears plenty of space. They are pretty well in tune with and adapted to their environment, and they generally know when something’s amiss or when someone has entered their territory. Sure, get between a sow and her cub, or a boar and his food cache (I’ve inadvertently done both) and you might be in trouble – particularly in national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone where bears sometimes lose their natural fear of people. But even then -- though bears may get nervous or agitated, get their hair up, snap their jaws, maybe even do a bluff charge -- they rarely attack people.
I’ve managed to avoid conflict by looking away from them, holding out my hands, slowly walking away, and softly and calmly (and humbly) saying out loud: “I’m not going to hurt you so please don’t hurt me.” In other words: Show them you are not a threat to them or their cubs. They seem to appreciate the gestures. It is, after all, their home – one of the few and increasingly shrinking places we’ve left for them. In the rare instances when bears do attack it makes the news, which gives them an unfair and unjustified reputation. (The scientific name for grizzlies, Ursus arctos horribilis, is a terrible misnomer and should be changed.)
Consider this: Glacier National Park has the largest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 and receives more than two million human visitors a year. Yet less than one person a year has been injured by bears, and there has been only 10 bear-related fatalities since the park opened in 1910. The most common and frequent causes of death in Glacier are automobile accidents, heart attacks, drowning and lightning.
Once, after nearly a week of bushwhacking alone in the wilds of Glacier, I came upon a trail and met four wonderful women from San Francisco hiking with bells on and carrying bear spray. I shared a camp with them that night, and they spoke a lot about their fear of grizzlies. They asked me how I could hike alone off trail without bells and bear spray and not worry. I shared the statistics with them and told them that, instead of carrying bells and bear spray, it would make far more sense for them to not get in a car, carry a defibrillator, attach a lightning rod to their packs and wear a life preserver. They became a bit more comfortable in the wilds after that.
Bear safety? Respect them, be humble around them, move cautiously through their homes, be alert, and give them plenty of space. Better yet: Support good groups like the Vital Ground Foundation that protect critical grizzly habitat and gives bears the room they need and deserve.
Help keep bears safe!
Help keep bears safe!