Grizzly attacks in 2020 run at record high


JACKSON – A male grizzly spooked out of a daybed by a 41-year-old Cody resident out hunting for antlers resulted in a helicopter ride to the hospital.

Outside Big Sky, Montana, a cyclist in his 60s pedaled along a trail for a birthday bike ride. He turned up critically injured, with broken bones in his face, jaw and ribs after a surprised grizzly acted to neutralize the unexpected, rolling threat.

Near Old Faithful, in Yellowstone National Park, a 37-year-old Missouri woman hiking alone came upon a grizzly sow and cub. The adult bear charged, knocked her down and scratched her thigh. The hiker made it out OK, all things considered.

A wildlife biologist, out researching sage grouse at Montana’s Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, was seriously bitten by a charging grizzly despite deploying bear spray.

These are four of seven documented human-bear encounters resulting in injuries in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so far this year. That rate of injury easily surpasses the average ahead of the fall hunting season. 

Typically in the first six months of any year, just a single interaction with Ursus arctos horribilis ends in harm to a human. The frequency of grizzly-caused injuries to date in 2020 is a clear-cut record, surpassing 2007’s high mark of three, according to data provided by Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team supervisor research biologist Frank van Manen.

There is no straightforward explanation, and it’s possible that the unprecedented volume of pre-hunt human injuries is the product of chance. But it hasn’t helped that there have been more people recreating in more places around the Yellowstone region, one consequence of a global pandemic that has opened up schedules and put a premium on spending time in Northern Rockies’ outdoor splendors.

“I’m totally speculating,” van Manen told the News&Guide. “We don’t have the numbers yet, but we know that there have been a lot of recreationists out on public lands, especially during the time when the parks were closed.”

Talking with supervisors of the five national forests that circle the ecosystem, the federal grizzly scientist has heard of “tremendous increase” in trailhead activity — an observation that holds true for the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

“So I think it’s logical for us to go to this theory as a possible explanation for what we’re seeing this year,” van Manen said. “Future years will tell us whether this is indeed usually an outlier, but I think it’s certainly a reasonable hypothesis.”

Speaking historically, the spring and summer human-grizzly conflicts are already an outlier. Based on bear attack data for the ecosystem that goes back to 1992, just 17% of injuries have happened during the first six months of the year. The big hunting season months — chiefly September and October — are normally high time for incidents that end in injury, both to bears and humans.

The other likely ingredient in the cloudy calculus that has led to more humans being hurt early on than ever before, van Manen said, is that grizzlies continue to fan out and reoccupy old haunts on the fringes of the region from which they were wiped out generations ago. More people and more bears in more places, the thinking goes, increases the likelihood that somebody is going to bear the brunt of the aggression inherent in the grizzly.

The seven attacks in the ecosystem through June 26 have varied in nature.

“The types of incidents have been kind of all over the place, both geographically and in their context,” van Manen said. “You have some that involved antler hunters, some that involved bikers, hikers, a tourist in Yellowstone, a Fish and Wildlife Service employee. It’s all over the map, which tells me there’s nothing in particular going on with the bears themselves.”

None of the incidents, he said, indicated predatory behavior.

The May 29 attack that left 73-year-old Gregory Godar with punctures in his stomach was, like several others this spring, seemingly prompted by the presence of cubs. The West Yellowstone, Montana, resident told the tale of the attack vividly in an interview with East Idaho News. Godar “thought he was going to die” as the sow bear slashed his back, swung him to the ground and bit into his torso.

“I said to myself, ‘Well, at least I’m getting killed by a pretty bear,’” he told the online Gem State news source. “She was very beautiful.”

Most, but not all, grizzlies that have made contact with people this spring and summer have moved off on their own. Spencer Smith, the Cody shed hunter, arrested his attack in fortuitous fashion, when the bear bit into his holstered bear spray, rupturing the canister, delivering a mouthful of capsaicin, and presumably causing the animal to break off the attack.

A similar type of incident, involving the search for shed antlers, came two weeks later, when a man was injured on the state-owned Kirk Inberg/Kevin Roy Wildlife Habitat Management Area east of Dubois. For the shed hunter, that attack ended in a hospital visit to treat non-life-threatening injuries. For the sow bruin, accompanied by year-old cubs, it was a gunshot that drew the encounter to a close, ending the animal’s life.

The two springtime Wyoming shed hunting attacks came in the wake of an unusually quiet fall. There were no human injuries, a welcome absence of incidents that wildlife managers hadn’t enjoyed since 2007, Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson said.

Thompson agreed with van Manen’s premise: The unprecedented spate of human injuries likely stemmed from more bears and more people in more places.

“It’s somewhat inevitable, and that’s why we try to do everything we can with information and education,” Thompson said. “When there’s more people out there in areas with high densities of bears — and even low densities of bears — it just increases that potential.

“People involved in the attacks this year were well versed [with bear safety],” he said, “and doing everything right.”

Despite 2020’s record-to-date rate of conflicts that have involved human-grizzly contact, van Manen said there are actually some encouraging trends in the long-term data. The busiest full calendar years for human injuries, he said, are mostly clustered farther back in time. Looking back over recent decades, the peak human-grizzly conflict years came in 1994 (nine injuries), 1997 (eight), 2004 (eight), 2007 (eight), 2010 (nine), 2011 (14) and 2017 (eight).

“You could actually argue there’s more in the early days,” van Manen said. “That leads me to believe it’s because the public has been much more informed about how to prevent encounters.”

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader said he didn’t want residents and visitors to be panicked over what’s taken place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this spring and summer.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to think that this is the start of a trend,” van Manen said. “And I don’t want people to think that they’re suddenly doing something different. They’re not.”

“The bears are doing the same thing they’ve always done,” he said, “they’re just in more places and in higher densities, and that combined with increased recreational use could be the cause of this — even though we’ll probably never know that for sure.”

Independent conservationist Steve Primm, who specializes in how people can coexist with large carnivores, agrees that the sample size of 2020’s grizzly-human conflicts is too small to draw any firm conclusions. Still, he believes there are lessons to be learned.

“All of these incidents underscore the need for situational awareness,” Primm said, “and practicing with bear spray, so that when you do have to deploy rapidly and in close-range, you have a chance at being able to do that effectively.”

That guidance, he said, is especially important for people who partake in fast-paced recreational pursuits, like mountain biking and trail running.

“I think there are a lot of places where we shouldn’t be encouraging those kinds of uses,” Primm said. “But I hope people recognize that if they are going to do something like that in grizzly bear habitat, it’s inherently risky and there are places where what they ought to be doing is slowing way down and making noise.”

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