Two facts: The world is a dangerous place and grizzly bears are apex predators. (Bonus fact: grizzly bears are also a keystone species). What do those facts have to do with one another? As it turns out, not much. But perception is a powerful force.
Why do people perceive grizzly bears as dangerous? To be fair, for one, they can be. Though as we’ve illustrated time and again (and will be doing so here) the chance of being injured or killed in an encounter with a grizzly bear is exceedingly small.
Here are some things that were significantly more likely than a grizzly bear to kill you in the United States of America during the sixteen years beginning in 1999 and ending in 2014.
Lawn mowers (951 deaths)
Ice skates, skis, roller-skates, and skateboards (1139 deaths)
Falling from trees (1413 deaths)
Agricultural machinery (4183 deaths)
Accidents involving beds (20,592 deaths)
What did we learn here (besides the strong indication we should consider sleeping on the floor)? One, accidents happen, some avoidable, some not. Two, we don’t hear about them with great frequency. Ask yourself when was the last time you read a news report about someone falling out of bed and not surviving the ordeal. If you’re honest you likely can’t recall. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a headline or a news story about a predator encounter?
Perhaps comparing accidents involving the workplace, recreation, or the home with bear encounters is the proverbial apple meeting the orange. What about the natural world? What animals are more likely to kill you than grizzly bears?
Another list (this time covering the years 2001 to 2013 and representing fatalities per year in the United States):
Venomous snakes and lizards (6 deaths per year)
Spiders (7 deaths per year)
Non-venomous arthropods – insects and crustaceans (9 deaths per year)
Cows (20 deaths per year)
Dogs (28 deaths per year)
Other mammals (52 deaths per year)
Bees, wasps, and hornets (58 deaths per year)
Where do bears land on that list? Bears (to include black bears and grizzly bears) killed one person per year between 2001 and 2013. That’s the same as sharks and alligators.
In the United States, bees, wasps, and hornets account for 58 deaths per year. Bears account for one.
With the world of information at our proverbial and actual fingertips (or thumb tips as the case may be), it’s easy to find an even more detailed look at bear encounters and their result. Of course, it takes more digging to find the scientific, data-driven take on the issue than it does to find the urgent headlines about the latest negative encounters. (Bonus if you followed those links and noticed that one was a black bear encounter resulting in the first bear-caused human death in Saskatchewan since 1983, which is 37 years; and the other ended much more positively because the person involved carried bear spray. He didn’t escape injury, but he’s most certainly still alive.) The science is there for the finding though, and the finding isn’t difficult.
When we find it, we learn that from 2000 to 2015 brown bear encounters in North America numbered 183, or 11.4 per year. Of course, it’s possible there were more than that but those not making it into media reports almost certainly didn’t result in injury or death. Of those 183 encounters 24 resulted in a human fatality, which is 13.1%. Yes, 24 deaths divided by 16 years means an average of 1.5 deaths per year which is half again as much as indicated above. But remember this study includes all of North America (welcome, Canadian friends) whereas the number we referenced earlier includes only the United States.
Statistically speaking 183 encounters and 24 deaths is not very much at all. Why are predator encounters so clearly at the forefront of media attention and popular awareness?
According to Giulia Bombieri et al, writing for the journal BioScience in August 2018, “Antipredator sentiments can be exacerbated by an exaggerated perception of the risk associated with predator attacks on humans. Several models and theories have been developed to try explaining risk perception. Studies have shown that people are more likely to make judgements about risks based on their feelings and instinct rather than on analytic evaluation. This leads them to often overestimate events associated with dramatic and sensational items and to underestimate events that are unspectacular. Indeed, people significantly overestimate highly publicized causes of death, which are likely to lead people to be exceedingly fearful of statistically small risks, as is the case for injury and death from predator attacks.”
The authors go on to illustrate that in the case of predator encounters, cognitive bias and an evolutionary history of “conflictual coexistence” create a self-sustaining feedback loop in the media whereby, though rare, predator attacks garner lasting attention which contributes to an increased perception of risk. And thus the wheel in the sky keeps on turning. Or something.
As we navigate the new world of pandemic lockdowns and more people head to the far corners for socially-distant recreation, keep in mind that we at Bear Tracks value the safety of all our readers and non-readers, and of bears. Part of our goal is to educate and inform so these encounters might not happen or if they do happen they end in survival for both bears and people.
A bear encounter ending in injury is traumatic for the individual involved. We never intend to make light of that. A bear encounter ending in a fatality for the individual involved is traumatic for family, friends, and likely the “offending” bear as well (given the chance that bear will be tracked and killed because of the encounter). That is the outcome that we would choose least of all. The fact remains: it is very unlikely to happen. And if it does happen one simple step can provide as much as a 98% chance of avoiding injury.
This drum beat is familiar if you’ve been reading much at Bear Tracks. If you are going to be in grizzly country, get bear spray and learn how to use it. One study of bear encounters in Alaska between 1985 and 2006 indicates exactly what we mentioned above. In cases where people encountered bears while carrying bear spray, 98% of them avoided any injury.
If someone handed you a set of numbers that had a 98% chance of winning the Powerball jackpot, would you buy a ticket?