The chances of being eaten by a bear, or attacked by one in Yellowstone National Park are tiny, but the National Park Service stresses constant vigilance and wise behavior in the wild for visitors.
“We average approximately 75 reported human-bear encounters each year in backcountry areas of the Park,” said Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear management biologist. “We define an encounter as any incident where people see a bear and believe that the bear is mutually aware of the reporting person’s presence.”
If that seems like a large number of encounters in the Park’s 2.2-million square miles, Gunther said the yearly average of injuries to people from bears is just one.
Also, according to a Park Service online informational page, there have been just eight bear-caused fatalities since the Park was founded in 1872.
Far more people have drowned in the Park (121), have been killed falling into hot springs (21) or died from suicide (26).
Last week, Gunther conducted a live safety session on the Park’s Facebook page. Emphasized, as always, was the suggestion hikers and campers carry bear spray with them.
There was a reminder to remain at least 100 yards away from a bear even at bear jams where everyone is jostling for position to take pictures. There may or may not be a park ranger on site.
“We often don’t have enough staff,” Gunther said.
Recently, Park officials have begun urging visitors to honk their car horns if bears approach too closely. In his presentation, Gunther said bears finding a comfort zone near vehicles can be just the beginning of a slide into unacceptable behavior if they obtain human food.
And that can lead to major consequences.
The first step, Gunther said, “to a bear being killed or sent to a zoo.”
Recently Game and Fish has also issued behavior suggestions if a bear is spotted along the road in Wyoming.
“Having bears frequent highways increases the opportunity for them or their offspring to be hit by a vehicle,” said Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor. “It also increases the chances of a bear becoming more bold and approaching people.”
Thompson said drivers should not stop in the road or block traffic, stay in the car and stay at least 100 yards away. Game and Fish is echoing the honk-the-horn Yellowstone idea. And bears should never be fed.
Whether it is the issue of potentially delisting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly from Endangered Species Act protection, appealing a federal judge’s ruling to return their management from the states to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or a recent hearing in Washington, D.C. on proposed U.S. House of Representatives legislation that would prevent future grizzly hunts, bears get more air time and print column inches in Wyoming than politicians.
The House bill, introduced by Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, is named the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act.
Its provisions would ban hunting or killing of grizzlies, except in conflicts with people or for tribal religious ceremonies. If passed into law, the bill would also expand the role of Native American tribes in bear conservation programs.
Operating with the belief the Yellowstone bear is a recovered species under all previously established criteria, Wyoming has proposed a limited grizzly hunt as part of a population control program. This hunt was shelved last fall when the U.S. court in Missoula, Mont. returned grizzly management to the federal government.
Wyoming’s U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and Sen. Mike Enzi have introduced legislation in their respective chambers to overrule the Missoula decision, remove grizzly bears from Fish and Wildlife jurisdiction and return management to the states.
Game and Fish director Brian Nesvik traveled to Washington as a witness at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the no-hunting plan.
He opposed the bill and reminded congressmen the states spent years contributing to the work of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team developing the delisting plan.
“I didn’t sense there should be a lot of support for it,” Nesvik said of the grizzly ban.
Native American tribes have opposed Wyoming’s planned hunt in court, saying the bear is sacred to them.
G&F and other agencies say grizzly bears are expanding far beyond their traditional ranges because of a growing population. These produce unexpected human encounters and also lead to bear predation of ranch livestock.
Many of the 4 million annual visitors rate seeing grizzly bears in the wild at the top of their must-see in Yellowstone list. The vast majority of the visitors never leave the road or move more than a half mile inland to the backcountry.
“The risk of being injured by a grizzly bear is approximately 1 in 59.5 million visits, for those that stay in front-country developments, along roads and on boardwalk trails,” Gunther said.
The odds of being injured for those camping overnight in roadside campgrounds, he said, are 1 in 26.6 million. They drop to 1 in 1.7 million for overnights in the backcountry, and for those hiking in the backcountry, 1 in 232,000 person days.
The last person killed by a bear in Yellowstone was a hiker in 2015. The other fatalities occurred in 2011 (two), 1986, 1984, 1972, 1942 and 1916.