Imagine walking down the street from your home in South Lake Tahoe, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, or even a large portion of Mexico and encountering a grizzly bear. It may sound like a fantasy, but a few hundred years ago, you could have done exactly that. And back after the end of the last ice age, their range extended past Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit. Today, however, if you want to see a grizzly bear in the wild, there are only a few places in the continental United States to do so. And a couple of those locations are iconic national parks–Yellowstone National Park (NP) and Glacier NP.
Human-bear conflicts are on the rise, according to a recent CNN article which cites a 2011 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. While the article isn’t specific to grizzlies and the study itself actually only analyzes black bear encounters, population growth and our desire to be outside and explore the wilderness are cited as contributing factors. Which only makes sense if you think about it. If more people are spending more time in a predator’s habitat, there are just going to be some chance encounters.
And although many regard black bears as more docile and congenial than grizzly bears, it turns out that this isn’t always accurate. Commonly, black bears aren’t considered a major threat in the same way as grizzly bears unless you happen to come across or between a mother and her cubs. This is wildly inaccurate, since according to the previously mentioned study, the authors determined that in fatal human-black bear encounters (fatal on the human side, I’m assuming) 88% of attacks involved predatory bears, and 92% of the predatory bears were males.
Regardless of the fact that male predatory black bears are accountable for the majority of fatal human-black bear encounters, personally I would still prefer to randomly encounter a black bear in the wild than a grizzly bear. And I would vastly prefer to encounter a grizzly today than one a few hundred years ago.
While we’ve thus far treated grizzly bears as one species, there are and have been a number of subspecies of this enormous predator. The Kodiak bear, which lives in Alaska, is often regarded as the world’s largest land predator (sometimes this title goes to the polar bear) and can weigh up to 1700 pounds, while the American Bear Society says that male grizzlies in North America can weigh from 300 to 900 pounds. However, there are accounts of far larger California grizzly bears, a subspecies that is now extinct. The largest recorded bear ever was shot by a man named John Lang in the Santa Clarita, California, area, just north of present-day Los Angeles in 1873. It weighed in at approximately 2350 pounds, multiple times larger than the grizzly bears you’re likely to run across in Yellowstone or Glacier NP.
These bears were so large, that abhorrent though it may seem, they were often used in fighting spectacles for the amusement of onlookers. In these spectacles, bears would sometimes fight longhorn cattle, lions (African or mountain), and sometimes even donkeys. When fighting a longhorn, Exploring the Outdoors with Indian Secrets, says, “The bear usually killed the bull outright with one blow of a paw at the head or neck that snapped the spine.” Things apparently changed somewhere around the second-quarter or middle of the 19th century, since California Grizzly states, “–in contrast to most of the battles of earlier times, the bull usually was the victor–.” The author’s claim is that the Spanish vaqueros had caught the largest grizzlies possible, while the Americans, who had come into control of the area after the Mexican-American War and started west during the gold rush, were probably trapping smaller grizzlies and even using black bears. This was about the same time that public sentiment, and a declining bear population, began putting a stop to these spectacles. Fights continued to be staged, sometimes with donkeys instead of bulls, and an 1865 fight even pitted a bear against a mountain lion, with the mountain lion winning the duel. An African lion was shipped across the Atlantic to fight a grizzly bear, and although the fight sounds like it would be intriguing, reports state that it was won quickly by the bear.
The bottom line is that grizzlies didn’t always win these fights, but since people don’t have claws or horns, there is little doubt that in hand-to-hand combat a grizzly should prevail. As such, if you visit Yellowstone or Glacier NP, make sure to bring bear spray along. And for Pete’s sake, make sure you know how to use it and make sure it’s accessible and not at the bottom of your pack. (The same goes for urban environments and mace, if you carry it. It won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it or it isn’t quickly accessible.) On your belt or in your purse, if you carry one in the wilderness for some reason, would be good locations.
While grizzlies can be dangerous, they don’t generally want to encounter or engage with human beings, so as long as you take proper precautions and know how to act when in bear country, there’s really no need to be overly afraid. Bears are simply trying to live their lives, and although chance encounters do occur, groups like the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) are always conducting research to help manage and monitor bears. In fact, the IGBST just started a two-month study period to tag and monitor grizzly bears in the Yellowstone NP area.
The IGBST’s work is in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act and is being carried out to help monitor and support the bear population recovery, so although bears are currently found solely in Alaska, Canada, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, it’s possible that at some point in the future, if their recovery continues and Americans can determine how to interact with them safely, they will reclaim more of their natural range. And if that happens, then perhaps someday you or your descendants will once again see grizzlies in states like Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. I’ll let you know if I see any vacationing in Tahoe.
Author of Don’t Step on the Dirt and Grow Your Family Tree Online
Stephen Herrero, Andrew Higgins, James E. Cardoza, Laura I. Hajduk & Tom S. Smith, “Fatal Attacks by American Black Bear on People: 1900-2009,” Journal of Wildlife Management, April, 2011.
Storer, Tracy Irwin, California Grizzly, 1996
Macfarlan, Alan A, Exploring the Outdoors with Indian Secrets, 1982