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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What’s Behind The Grizzly Bear Attacks In Yellowstone?

Nearly 3.5 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year and two of them didn’t make it out. They were killed, one partially eaten, by grizzly bears.

Now many are wondering what’s going on, because from 1986 to 2010, there were no deadly encounters with grizzlies.

Jeff Hull set out to answer those questions in the June issue of Outside Magazine. What he found was a fairly simple answer: There are more people visiting Yellowstone, and because of a successful recovery program, there are also more bears.

The number of grizzlies in the Yellowstone region has jumped from 136 in 1975 to 602 in 2010. So human-bear encounters are no longer rare occurrences and people are not heeding warnings about what to do if they meet up with a grizzly in the wild.


  • Jeff Hull, contributor to Outside Magazine

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  • Eryn Paini

    Hi Robin! My brother lives 30+ miles west of West Yellowstone in Island Park, Idaho, and he was attacked by a grizzly last September while elk hunting with his business partner and friend: http://www.islandparknews.com/atf.php?sid=10532. Luckily, he survived the attack, although he lost his left ring finger, suffered nerve damage, and needed to have titanium rods implanted in his right arm.

  • Kmf Timm

    Recently, an employee of Alaska Fish and Game attributed some of the increased bear attacks in Alaska on cell phones… in order to take a picture with their cell phone camera, tourists have to get much closer than in the past. I’m glad to see that the ultimate conclusion was more people and more bears. Its easy to wonder what’s going on with the bears, but often its the increasing number and opportunities for overlap with people that’s the problem.

  • Doctorschafer

    Need to assess the bear. A female with cubs, better to play dead so she won’t think you a threat. A male looking for lunch, you need to be less appetizing, fight back.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

    With the brown bears we encountered in Alaska we slowly backed away long before the bears ever got to the charging point.  All the advice we were given about what to do when the actually charge matches exactly with what your guest says.

    Black bears will almost always run, I have chased them away on numerous accounts, including one time when I actually had to punch one to get it to leave me alone.

  • CRowland

    I lived in Alaska for 18 years.  Don’t run, try standing them off, carry a shotgun.  Only good for close encounters.  Use only as needed.  Better mauled and alive!


      I agree with you about not running-but I have to be honest I think I might run when being chased. I know this would be death for me-but I could never honestly say I would remember what to do if confronted. 

  • SuzanneNYC

    Really, how many of us are going to encounter a bear in the wild.  The problem is people invading bear territory and thinking somehow they’re meeting Yogi Bear not a real bear.

    • CRowland

      Totally true! 

  • Jehnifer Niklas

    Hi! Listening to the broadcast now. While I have never ran into a Grizzly  can attest to the “fighting back” stance with black bears. I have run into them while hiking both in Northern Arizona and Wyoming and every time I stood my ground. Sometimes even put my hands up over my head and sort of growled and they instantly responded… stopped advancing and moved away.

  • livin in the back 40

    Black bears are far more predictable than grizzlies. Several years ago in Montana, there was a couple who studied bears who were attacked by a grizzly. They both had bear spray. She ended up dying from the encounter. He said he knew she would have done all the defensive moves. 
    I have a friend who ended up picking huckleberries in the same vicinity of a grizzly. He didn`t notice her until he had been picking for a few hours. They looked at each other then went on about their business.
    One thing about these state parks is that these bears are too familiar with trash and people food.  A friend suggested that maybe these kind of bears view tents as a large trash bag. Best to sleep in the car.
    Concerning the people who got attack in their tents, they may had made the simple mistake of going to bed with the clothes in the tent they wore when they cooked their meals. So many simple things, like deodorant, shampoo fragrance, female monthly cycles, and even sex can be a major bear draw.

  • J Frog

    Wait a second. So grizzlies are now eating humans? And this is all happening as Americans are becoming more and more obese. Cooincidence? Or is mother nature fattening us up for a good grizzly meal? Reminds me of the classic Twilight Zone…”To Serve Man”…In fact the should have been the title of this segment. :-)

    • somsai

      Nothing new. Bears have been eating humans in the US for more than 10,000 years.

  • Amy

    Two out of 3.5 million?  You have a MUCH greater risk of being killed by a drunk driver or some idiot texting any day of the week. (One hundred times more likely, actually.)  How about doing a story on something that really matters? How about avoiding the sensationalist stories and helping expose the real problems in this country?

    • Jeffmartin254

      The risk “odds” are irrelevant when you are personally at risk. Be prepared and not scared…my motto. Bear spray AND a firearm are appropriate along with knowing how best to prevent a bad contact with bears.

  • AlaskanWoodsman

    If you spend time in the Alaskan wilderness, you are likely to encounter a grizzly.   Most of the time, if left alone, the bear will go it’s own way.  But sometimes it doesn’t.   In most cases of bear on human aggression, the bears are simply responding to a perceived threat.  They will protect food and cubs.  But in some rare cases bears will prey on humans.  When this happens, rolling over and curling into a ball is the worst thing you can do.  To have any chance of surviving you must fight back.  When in bear country, I carry a .338 Winchester magnum or a 12 gauge pump shotgun loaded with slugs.  I’ve never had to shoot a bear, and hope I never do.  But if it’s me or the bear, the bear is going down. 

    • ejk

       Finally, a gun-owner with some sense.  I’m so sick of hicks with guns itching for the opportunity to shoot an animal. I carry a gun in national forests too, and hope I never have to use it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Washichu-Rehab/100003665902005 Washichu Rehab

      Right on. Cool that there are level headed people out there, who do live close to the wilderness, but have 360 deg understanding what it means.

  • somsai

    The first part is correct, more bears plus more people equals more encounters. Blaming people for not doing the “righ thing” is just plain nutty. Humans are animals too, we do what we’re programed to do in our DNA. 

    Yellowstone bears are also much more prone to agression than bears elsewhere. They’ve never been preyed on by humans, they are habituated and have no fear. For those who say we moved into their territory go ahead and de populate Los Angelas before you start telling others how to live.

    Bottom line, bears do hunt and eat people, it just happens, we’ve chosen to allow it.

  • PithHelmut

    Oh darn. I thought it was the bears fighting back.  I wonder if bears too would defer to humans if we just stood our ground firmly, like we do with horses.  If only the bears could arm themselves with guns and level the playing field a little bit.

  • Skeena

    I love listening to Here and Now, but this story troubled me, not because of the story itself, but Ms. Young’s naive reaction to the bear attacks. 

    I am a hunter, and hiker, who has spent many days in the backcountry of Alaska and the lower 48, as well as the Canadian backcountry and high Arctic.  I’ve had the privilege of fishing at Brooks Camp in Alaska with great grizzly nearby, and on more remote streams with them on ridges above me.   I’ve hiked the Upper Russian River at the peak of the red salmon run, and never had a problem with bears. 

    In 1987, I had a close call while rafting the Nenana outside Denali.  A grizz saw the red raft and may have thought that the salmon run was early and he hit the motherlode.  He made three charges into the river, but stopped when he was chest deep.  We unlashed an extra paddle, worried that he might decide to forge a shallow area where a creek entered the river about 100 yards ahead of us, but he abandoned the efforts before then, in part due to the noise and commotion that we made to let him know that we were not a food source.  Even so, the “close encounter” was a thrill —  after we finished shaking!  I only wish that I had been able to access my camera, but the pictures are still clear as can be in my mind.

    Most encounters are the result of surprising a bear.  Hike with bear bells and make a lot of noise.  If you see a bear, make yourself as big as possible and let him/her know that you are human.  Even after the aforementioned encounter, I’ve never hiked with a gun.  My only worries have been when elk hunting, when gunshots are sometimes perceived as dinner bells for bears.  But I have never run into any trouble.  Unfortunately, we forget that we have encroached on the bears’ environment, and grizz need a lot of territory.  While the recent bear “attacks” on humans are grim, at least one was avoidable.  More often than not, it is the bear who is the victim.   Visitors to Yellowstone need to mind the rangers, who seem to find it necessary to tell park visitors that bears are not Yogi or Smokey.  Wildlife is wild, and though there are no cages, the animals are not tame.  As much as that bison may look like Ferdinand the Bull, don’t pet it!

    As for Ms. Young, I am concerned that your own fears colored this story and may endanger more bears.  You seem to be afraid of the animals, instead of in awe of them.  What a shame.  I first visited Yellowstone in 1977, but it took nearly 20 years for me to see my first bear there.  What a gift when I did!  

  • http://www.wherethebearwalks.blogspot.com/ Chris

    The greatest contributing factor in the recent Yellowstone attacks is the loss of the whitebark pine trees to an infestation of beetles. Winter temperatures have not been cold enough to kill off the insects and the nuts that grow on the pine trees – a primary source of protein and nutrition for the bears – are no longer in abundance. This has resulted in a very malnourished grizzly population. Unless the health of the whitebark shifts back, attacks will continue.

  • Millie Carson

    I was a backcountry ranger in Denali NP, Glacier Bay NP and Preserve, Glacier National NP, USFS out of West Yellowstone, MT and USFS out Red Lodge, MT.   All my backcountry patrols were performed solo, and on foot!  Not once did I ever have a problem with a bear, Grizz or Black.  I’m a 5 foot 3 inch female, and I have never carried a gun either!  I do however, always carry pepper spray!!!!  Have had close encounters with the furry kind, both Black and Grizz, in fact, one time I could have reached out and petted the Grizz as it walked by me,  I froze like a statue and was fine.

    I recommend reading Stephen Herraro’s book BEAR ATTACKS.  It chronicles every bear attack from the early 1990′s, and analyzes what could have been done differently to mitigate the attack. Animals can sense energy and they respond to it.  I happen to like bears and consider it a priviledge to live and work around and among them.  I always make a ton of noise when I hike in bear country.  Bear bells don’t do it, they aren’t loud enough.  I carry bear spray.  I always sleep in a tent, never on the ground, and I don’t hike during crepuscular hours, when bears are most active.

    And sometimes we can do everything right and bad things still happen.  I would certainly prefer to go by way of a bear than a gang of hoodlums, like the guys who attacked the female jogger in Central Park years ago.

    • JCantor

      Has someone already responded that the “gang of hoodlums” that attacked the jogger in Central Park, were wrongly convicted, declared not guilty, and released from prison.  This fall a documentary film will be released about this.

  • Ehill7

    The Grizzly has no where else to go.  We have taken away all their land, just like we did the Indians.  Please leave  them alone.  Carry bear spray.

  • Maggie Jiang

    i read about this at school

  • Gillettestevens

    Black bear cubs climb like squirrels, so female black bear aren’t pressured to attack when a human being appears nearby. Black bear cubs instinctively know to climb, and will stay up a tree until the danger is gone. Grizzly females, however, will frequently attack humans when surprised with cubs. Generally, black bears attack you because they want to eat you. They probably aren’t attacking to defend cubs…so fight back hard if attacked, don’t play dead. Playing dead CAN stop an attack from a mother grizzly defending her cubs, because she just wants her cubs safe.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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