Bear Attacks - Killer Statistic That May Surprise You

Bear Attacks

Statistics show that bear attacks shouldn't be your biggest concern about going into the woods.
by Mike Rogers, July 2017

It’s been a rough start to summer in Alaska. We’ve experienced a spate of bear attacks that have resulted in two fatalities. Such attacks capture the imaginations and attention of a whole bunch of people and I’ve seen dozens of articles and even a couple of national news stories on the topic. One was even fancifully named, “The Killers in the Backcountry!” Among the cadres of outdoor enthusiasts that I know; everyone is dusting off cans of bear spray, picking up a fresh box of ammunition or perhaps picking up that new .44 Magnum. When a bear picks one of us off, we tend to react by taking defensive measures. That’s probably not a completely bad idea. Bears, despite the considerable anthropomorphic tendencies of some people, are not cuddly and can be downright dangerous. But that’s where the wheels sort of fall off. Just how dangerous are bears? What sort of caution do bears reasonably warrant? What sort of preparations do savvy outdoors folks take without drifting to the extremes of carelessness or paranoia? Human beings in general, and many individuals in particular, positively suck at risk assessment. There are a couple of reasons that risk assessment is difficult. The first is that good data is tough to come by. Statistics on outdoor injuries are a bit murky and the CDC completed the single comprehensive study in 2005 and published it in 2008. It’s the most complete study on the topic and even it has some glaring holes.
black bear attacks statistics Black bear in tree near Wrangell | Andrew E. Russell / Flickr There are a lot of limited studies that focus on specific risks, but some are so small that they are practically anecdotal. When you study outdoor incidents, small sample sizes are typical and might not be representative of anything at all other than a collection of events. On top of that you have the definitively anecdotal. The outdoor community loves stories and good ones travel like wildfire. We all know a couple of great stories, usually dramatic, that we didn’t experience first hand. Outdoor media latches onto these stories and dramatic bear encounters have historically been good sellers. A couple of good authors have sold numerous books on the subject of bears. It’s great entertainment and good information, but it’s not really data. One could read a couple of the more melodramatic versions from the 1950s and come away thinking you’d need an elephant gun to step out of the car to take a leak in the bushes without hazard to life and limb. The other reason good risk assessment is difficult is human psychology. For a very long time human beings were considerably farther down the food chain than we typically are today. The fear of being eaten is a fear shared by virtually every person on earth and it’s embedded so deep in our primitive brain that it overrides any rational look at real data on the subject. That’s why I know people in the Lower 48 in areas that haven’t had a bear attack in over a century who won’t tread farther than 100 yards from a car in a national park. It’s also why I strap on a .44 when I go fishing despite the overwhelming analytical data that I’ll be just fine if I don’t.

In the outdoors, the primary mechanism of injury is the same as everywhere else- slips, trips and falls.

Psychology is also why people do things that in retrospect should have been obviously dangerous. There simply isn’t a deeply wired fear of automobile crashes or lung cancer or cardiovascular disease—those things are simply too new in our evolutionary chain to have become deeply rooted primal fears. Things like ATVs and snowmachines bridge the gap between the perceived safeties of the automobile and extend it into the dangers of the wilderness. As a mechanism of injury, off road vehicles know few peers. Every year I see literally hundreds of folks astride a wheeler with a handgun strapped to their belt that aren’t wearing a helmet or have a jacket along despite the dark cloud on the horizon. While I can understand it, it ignores every single scrap of data on which is the most likely negative outcome in that particular situation. We have a deep innate fear of bears and nearly zero of off road vehicles and hypothermia. I’ve spent considerable time outdoors engaged in a wide variety of outdoor activities and I’ll admit outright that at times my risk meter was way off the mark. I’ve done some patently stupid things and paid the price in terms of pain. I’ve also had a few bear encounters, none ended badly. While I’ll never make the case that bears aren’t dangerous, I do wonder just how much emotional and intellectual energy we should spend on topics like “bear spray vs. guns” at the expense of topics like, “Which life jacket works best,” "What is the right size for a first aid kit,” or “Which is better: Helly Hansen or Goretex after cold water immersion?” The data from the CDC showed some revealing things. The first is that you’re far more likely to be injured than die in the outdoors and that some of the things we worry about the most, are the least likely to happen. For you math geeks out there—here are some of the numbers from 2005 and they’re pretty much average.
# OF DEATHS IN THE UNITED STATES PER YEAR Cause of death ..................... # dead Cardiovascular disease ........ 856,030 Transportation accidents .... 48,441 Drowning ............................. 3,582 Hypothermia ........................699 West Nile virus .................... 119 Hornet/bee/wasp stings ….. 48.5 Snake bites .......................... 5.2 Bear attacks ................. 2
In N. America something like 2-5 people die in bear attacks every year. While I don’t want to be perceived as insensitive to any victim of a bear attack, it’s just not that common. Dramatic and novel? Yes. Common? No. A cruise into any outdoors related online forum and there will be hundreds upon hundreds of threads about bear attacks, bear defense weapons or bear defense strategy for every fatality. Go find a thread about personal flotation devices or packing an epinephrine pen and you’ll probably come up very short by comparison. The numbers are certainly not proportional to the 3,582 people who drowned or the 48 people who died from anaphylactic shock following a bee sting. In the outdoors, the primary mechanism of injury is the same as everywhere else—slips, trips and falls. The numbers are so vast they didn’t even make the list since falling down appears to be a risk of bipedalism regardless of location or activity. In my own experience, my worst outdoor injury was a fall down a scree chute while hunting in the Alaska Range. I was prepared for bad weather, an animal encounter or a bad cut from a skinning knife and completely flubbed it by crossing the top of some broken shale. If you check the numbers, the primary mechanism of injury for hunting is falling out of a tree stand. Hunting is an activity where millions of people of every level of intelligence take to the woods with guns and while getting accidentally shot is incredibly rare, falling out of a stand and maiming yourself is not. While this spring’s bear attack fatalities have grabbed national attention, you can bet that before the summer and fall are over there will be several folks drown, several more fall off something high and several dozen maim themselves with an ORV. Most of these incidents won’t make more than a mention in a local paper. I won’t pretend that there aren’t killers in the backcountry, but that list is much longer than Ursus arctos horrilibis. In the greater scheme, bears represent only a minor hazard. The drive to the trailhead is orders of magnitude more dangerous than anything you’re likely to encounter once you get there. In fact, when you look at the numbers, perhaps not going outside is the greatest hazard of all. You are 425,000 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than being mauled by a bear. Perhaps the biggest killer isn’t in the backcountry after all … maybe it’s your living room sofa.
If you enjoyed "Bear Attacks," check out "Navigating the M/V in Deplorable Weather."


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weight loss foods April 17, 2021

I’ve spent 25 years wandering the woods and mountains of interior AK and have never run into a bear". I see tracks, and fresh droppings, but that is it. In the fairbanks area, Chatanika valley I’m in the woods most weekends on off trail walks. No bears. I go backpacking East of Denali in the Talkeetnas most summers, I do take a gun, but again, no bears. Moose scare me more. Falling down a mountain is more likely. While I am in bear country, they are not as common as people say and normally hear you before you hear them. I will say the SE is a different matter. I lived on PWI for a year and had several bear encounters. Saw bears on about half my trips out of town. On that Island I ws very cautious and always took. Gun. Bear attacks may not be common, but in areas where bears are plentiful and people not, your chances skyrocket.

Brian April 17, 2021

I went horse back riding with an old woodsman a few years back and he sang at the top of his lungs on the ride. He told me singing carries farther than talking. We saw bear tracks, but not a single bear. Could have been that his singing was pretty bad, too.

Mary Bell April 17, 2021

Bears do love them tasty snacks on bicycles tho… Or perhaps they just get pissed by the spandex wearing clowns and their annoying erratic behavior…
What wasn’t mentioned was their olfactory attraction to food and menstruating women.
Remember the two Forest service temps who had their crotches devoured near Skilak about fifteen years ago.
Pepper Spray… Pffft, I’ve seen bears roll in tents and hear that had be treated to the stuff.

BTW, I was a bear guard for the USArmy Corps environmental teams for almost five years without any adverse incidents.

Peter Thompson April 17, 2021

I would think that if you had 1 death over the span of 2 years then .5 would be the numerically correct answer. Even though it is not possible to.have half a death the important thing is that it was less than 1 per year durning that time frame.

Ernest Lacaillade April 17, 2021

I live in Finland. We have bears all over this country. In latest 100 years 1 man has been killed by a brown bear (same species as grizzly). I don´t carry a gun with me when in the woods, simply because bears leave you alone if you let them be and keep some noise when moving around. That one case was a man jogging and ran in the middle of mother bear and cubs. He was running on a soft terrain, so he was very silent and managed to surprise bears.

Of course in some situations bear can be unpredictable and aggressive, but when knowing those situations and how to avoid getting there, it is no problem to wander in woods without some “bear protection kit”. Best protection is common sense and knowledge about wildlife.

Kimmo April 17, 2021

Excellent point.

Melodie April 17, 2021

Not sure where you got your info but Grizzlies absolutely do climb trees!

John April 17, 2021

Don’t worry he says, only a few people die each year from bear attacks, Yeah, what if you happen to be one of the few, “Stuff Happens” !

AnonYamous April 17, 2021

Yes, outright bear attacks are rare, but this is a flawed article that presumes the bear population is the same across North America with regard to size and density, or that people spend as much time on the trail in bear country as they do sitting on the couch waiting to have a heart attack. The point is valid but the authors math paints a false picture of actual risk levels.

sdfg sdfg April 17, 2021

I spent a couple of years in a mining camp in Alaska back in the 1960’s in an area with quite a few Grizzlies. When exploring out of camp I always carried a 357. My theory was that if I saw a bear to quietly move out of the his area. If he looked like he was going to attack, climb a tree (grizzlies don’t climb). If he pushed down the tree and you couldn’t get away, then try to kill him. Chances were that if you wounded him he would get mad and take you out. Grizzlies and not easy to kill and can operate even after being fatally wounded. Luckily my plan was never put to the test….

Gus Tuason April 17, 2021

Atta boy! Lol

Jason April 17, 2021

What are you, an idiot?

Robert Mckim April 17, 2021

For meat, we kill to eat in alaska…

Jason April 17, 2021

What they mean is one death every two years. Great advice, Mike! I’ve been hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for many years, some of it on established trails, some backcountry. I’ve seen two black bears from a distance in the wild, and one scavenging a dumpster behind as McDonalds. Possibly heard more, but they moved away when they heard me, as bears will almost always do. Attacks are usually the result of the bear being surprised, or when they investigate a food smell. Make a little noise when you’re out there, don’t smell like a kitchen, and you’ll be fine. Just remember, the bear prefers to avoid you. Plus, if you have a dog as a travelling companion (always leashed!!!), the chances of an attack are even smaller. When a bear hears or smells a dog, they think wolf, and a pack of wolves is about the only thing beside man that they fear. There’s a hilarious video I saw of a Pomeranian chasing a black bear out of a campsite. Funny!

Adventures with Dogs April 17, 2021

I agree, people kill more bears than do bears kill people. What’s that statistic?

John Shockley April 17, 2021

It’s an average – per year…

Dave April 17, 2021

I wondered that myself. The statistics come from the 2005 study of outdoor recreation related injuries conducted by the Center for Disease Control published in 2008. I didn’t have the full version with their methodology, but the CDC is typically rigorous about these things. If I had to hazard a guess, perhaps the bee sting was a contributing factor rather than a primary cause of death.

Mike Rogers April 17, 2021

Please do not tell people it is safe to go into the wilds. You will simply encourage more idiots to invade the quiet solitude that backcountry offers. Bears are everywhere people, seriously! Bear spray and .44 magnums will not protect you from voracious animals that run amok in the wilderness. Stay home and run your four-wheelers around your neighborhood cul-de-sacs.

Jim April 17, 2021

May not be that helpful. Everyone has a heart, but what percentage of people enter bear country? I’m guessing the chances go getting mauled go up considerably if I go out where the bears are.

Gary April 17, 2021

Lmao. great article. can you tell me more about the house bill HR …26 ? a bill that will allow butchers to gas bear and wolf cubs in the den. How Sackless is that ?

Ron Panarelli April 17, 2021

How do you get 0.5 of a death from bee stings? Just curious.

Heather Bennett April 17, 2021

It matters not how many risk assessment test are performed or what the chances per million that I will be attacked by a bear, or how much more likely I will die from cancer, cardiac disease or simply by crossing the road. What matters is that I wish t protect myself when I go into the woods so that I won’t be the small statistic mentioned here.. I love Alaska but I’m also aware that I must make adjustments in order to live here. It would be great if bear spray worked each and every time. I’m sure there are studies on that too. But for me it’s either stay home or get out and about with bear spray and a very big gun. It’s just common sense. And if I don’t come across a bear then all is good and well but if I do then my chances are much greater.

John April 17, 2021

Love this and thank you. We are summer transplants, up from South Dakota. All locals are telling us of bears and the dangers, to the point it’s like why go to the fricken river. But we will and we will enjoy. Thank you

Rhonda Bindert April 17, 2021

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