by Eric Sharpe
I used to go camping a lot. Living has gotten in the way in recent years but lately I have recommitted myself to getting back out there. I’ve camped all over the country but truly, there is nowhere better than Montana. Many places I’ve been outside the state had the illusion of remoteness, often broken by stumbling across a highway in discovering I’d not been reading my map properly. (I get lost a lot). But “remote” in Montana means just that. And it is this remoteness that has provided some of the last safe havens for America’s Grizzly bear population.
Prior to U.S. expansion across the West, there were an estimated 50,000 Grizzly bears in what would become the lower 48 states. Today, there are about 1,800 (not including Alaska) located in six protected regions, four of which cross Montana’s border. These protected regions expand into Canada. (The Bitterroot protected zone currently has no reported Grizzlies.) These areas are designated for the active recovery of Grizzly populations.
I admit, without embarrassment, that all of my camping and hiking experience and modest expertise is self taught. Our family never went camping. My only childhood experience was with a friend’s family in their rusty bucket of a camper. In fact, my first solo outing wasn’t until I was 23 years old in Southern Illinois’s Shawnee National Forest. I was so enamored with my first trip that I decided to sleep outside under the stars. This was where I learned that you can’t even leave a gum wrapper unsecured at your campsite, let alone food. This is also where I learned that sleeping out under the stars alone, at least in the absence of moonlight, is really not a good idea. I also learned that racoons are, in my opinion, the scariest animals in the forest. And they apparently like gum wrappers…
Over the years I’ve learned enough to be able to pass on good hiking and camping information on a wide variety of topics, but the decades of learning and knowledge, it seems, created a sense of comfort that has recently revealed some basic flaws.
Leave the Gun at Home
I’ve learned over the years everything I needed to know about the dangers of bears, especially Grizzly bears: Proper bear bagging of food when camping; make noise in low visibility areas when hiking; stand your ground when approached by a bear; black bears are virtually harmless; carry a large caliber gun; if all else fails play dead if attacked… I should add immediately that half of these assumptions are wrong.
When I first camped in Montana (many years ago), bear spray sounded good in theory, but frankly, having a shotgun loaded with a solid shot slug always made me feel more secure when camping in Grizzly country. And Montana’s Grizzly population was notoriously dangerous to non-residents (which I was many years ago). But as I began preparing to re-enter the forest after a few years absence, I felt it important to look into whether a shotgun was the best defense against a Grizzly or perhaps I should upgrade to a powerful handgun. Toting a heavy shotgun, afterall, is rather cumbersome.
What I discovered makes me feel rather stupid, though frankly, it still feels a bit counterintuitive. Simply, a gun is not the best defense against a bear. To my surprise, I found that “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not,” and that “bear spray [has] a better success rate under a variety of situations … than firearms.” This according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management entitled “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.”
This conclusion was based on information from “readily accessible state and federal records, newspaper accounts, books, and anecdotal information that spanned the years 1883 to 2009.” According to Outdoor Magazine’s review of the research, “the data set included 444 people, 357 bears (black, brown, and polar), and a total of 269 close encounters. Bear-inflicted injuries occurred in 151 of the incidents, including 17 fatalities, while aggressive bears were repelled (or killed) 84 percent of the time with handguns, and 76 percent of the time with long guns.”
This revelation begged the question: what else am I wrong about regarding the dangers of Grizzly bears and camping in Montana. It seems, a lot.
Playing Dead… only works in certain situations
According to bearsmart.com, “Playing dead will work if you’re being attacked by a mother grizzly defending her cubs.” If you are being attacked in any other situation, playing dead makes a bad situation worse as it will not save your life in a predatory attack. “If a bear attacks (particularly a black bear) in an offensive manner and physical contact is made, fight for your life. Kick, punch, hit the bear with rocks or sticks or any improvised weapon you can find.”
Grizzlies are More Dangerous, right?
Clearly, Grizzly bears are more dangerous than Black bears as they can be more aggressive and are more likely to feel provoked by intruders. Take 10 Grizzly bears versus 10 Black bears and the Grizzlies are more likely to cause trouble as Black bears tend to shy away from all human contact.
However… and this is a big however: because of the sheer numbers of black bear populations in North America, you may find it surprising that Black bears are in fact, just as, if not more, deadly than Grizzly bears. In all of North America, there are an estimated 56,000 Grizzly bears (with about 30,000 of those in Alaska and 25,000 in Canada)… and about 600,000 Black Bears. Black bear habitat is far more expansive as well (see map). Thus, due to the fact that humans are more likely to contact Black bears than Grizzlies, in the past 47 years, there have been about the same number of human fatalities from Black Bears (50) as there have been Grizzlies (56). But more surprising is the nature of those attacks by Black bears versus Grizzlies.
According to data reaching back to 1970, Black bear fatal attacks tend to be more predatory rather than defensive (protecting cubs, a kill, or territory). Six attacks were on home owners on their property with three of those including bears physically breaking into homes. Black bears are less discriminating in their attacks as well in that women and people of all ages have fallen victim to Black Bears. (see infographic on page 22) From a purely camping/hiking perspective… and Montanan perspective, yes, the Grizzly bear is the one to look out for. Of all the Black bear fatalities since 1970, none occurred in Montana and only 28% occurred on campers and hikers. Some 64% occurred in Canada. Grizzly fatalities in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) though are pretty rare. Only ten have occurred in the past ten years and of those, 7 were sows (females) protecting cubs and 1 was a grumpy male having been tagged just two hours before the attack. The other two were considered predatory. (see infographic page 20)
And all ten seemed to occur on a pretty specific type of person (see “you are more likely.. infographic below):
By the way, there has only been one fatal mountain lion attack in Montana. In fact, a hiker is more likely to die from an allergic reaction to a bee sting, a deadly spider bite or a rattlesnake than a bear. According to Backpacker.com, “the chances of being injured by a Grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park are approximately 1 in 2.7 million.” – from backpacker.com. And many of the places I like to camp and hike haven’t seen a Grizzly in years. Actually, sightings of Grizzlies in Montana are very rare averaging under 10 confirmed sighting in Montana each year for the past 4 years. (see infographic below)
Though you may have heard it all before, here are the best things you can do to avoid trouble with Bears:
1) hike in groups of 3 or more people,
2) staying alert -pay attention
3) making noise in areas with poor visibility,
4) carry bear spray,
5) never run from a bear.
The point of all of this? Years of experience can lead to a complacency when camping and hiking. New information is out there. Educate yourself before your next trip, especially regarding the dangers of the area you are frequenting, and don’t get caught without your bear spray.