Bears V.S. Tourist In America’s Parks!

????High above the glassy waters of Hebgen Lake, just outside of West Yellowstone, I’m armed with an industrial-size can of pepper spray and scanning for grizzly bears.

I know they’re here: The mud is indented with Shaq-size prints. Claw marks and clumps of coarse hair extend 9 feet up the pine trees. Freshly deposited on the path, berry-filled mounds of feces catch the sun.

In the past five years, three people have been killed by bears in nearby Yellowstone National Park. During that time, 20 million tourists have come through the park. I’m seven times more likely to be struck by lightning than to lose my life to a bear here.

But I still feel discomforted, so I’m going to turn to the numbers.

Half of all wild bear attacks in the United States happen in six national parks

Since 1900, there have been 158 fatal bear attacks in North America. Of these, 61 occurred in Canada and 97 in the United States.

Paring this down to just US fatalities, 26 of 97 were caused by captive bears — those kept in zoos or as pets (as was a short-lived trend in the early 20th century). I wanted to look only at attacks that happened in the wilderness, so I excluded these.

This gave me a list of 71 wild bear–related deaths in (or near) US state and national parks. (Note: Attacks that happened in a wilderness area before the creation of a national or state park were added to the park that is now on that land. Some of these attacks also occurred just outside of park land; in these cases, we added the attack to the nearest park, forest, or wilderness area).

I found that historically, Montana’s Glacier National Park — home to both black bears and grizzlies — has had the most bear attack fatalities, with 12. Yellowstone, also home to both bear species, has had eight.
Only 11 parks have had more than one bear-related death, and six of them are in Alaska. As a state, Alaska has had 24 total deaths — more than one-third of all bear attack fatalities in the United States. Most of them have been isolated incidents in small parks spread throughout the vast land.

And keep in mind, this is a really small fraction of all national parks. There are 6,741 state and national parks in America, and in the past 116 years, a bear attack death has only occurred in 36 of them.

The top six parks on this list (Glacier, Yellowstone, Glacier Bay, Chugach, Flathead, and Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks) account for more than 50 percent of all fatal attacks.
Most attacks involve grizzly bears, and occur during summer
Among fatal bear attack victims, the average age was 37. Of these victims, 21 were female and 50 were male. Many deaths happened deep in the backcountry, and were hunting- or fishing-related — hobbies dominated by men.

The vast majority of attacks (66 percent) involved grizzly bears; black bears account for the other one-third of deaths. There has only been one recorded wild polar bear death in America: In 1990, a bear chased down and partially ate a 28-year-old man in the middle of an Alaskan town near Noatak National Preserve.
Fatal bear attacks seem to correlate with visitor volume to parks. Most of the fatalities have happened during July and August, when trails are heavily populated.

Attacks are minimal December through April, when most bears are hibernating for the winter and spring.

My grandson just spent 2 years in Yellowstone and was there when a park employee was killed by a sow Grizzly.  He told me you are far more likely to be hurt, maimed, or killed by bison or even the thousands of elk roaming through the park, than a bear.  None of the encounters sound very good to me, so keep your distance and use your “brains” when encroaching in a “wild animals” domain!


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