Reflections on 2019 Bear Encounters in the Northern Rockies by Kimberly Johnston

If you live or recreate in the Northern Rockies, learning how to prevent a negative bear encounter will help you stay safe, enjoy your time outdoors, and keep bears wild. Each year, People and Carnivores examines bear incidents from the past year in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In 2019, there were four physical conflicts between people and grizzly bears, none of which were fatal.

The first incident occurred in April in the Madison Range when a 17-year-old was attacked after a surprise encounter with a grizzly bear while he was out looking for antler sheds. The young man reported that he was walking down a trail when he suddenly heard a noise behind him. He turned around to see what appeared to be a grizzly bear charging towards him. While the man was carrying bear spray, he was unable to reach it in time. The bear pinned him against a tree briefly before letting go. The man was able to crawl between two trees and deploy the bear spray over his shoulder toward the bear, successfully deterring the bear, which ran off. The man sustained relatively minor injuries.

The second and third incidents of 2019 occurred on the same day in September when three hunters were injured in two separate grizzly bear encounters less than a mile apart in the Gravelly Range. The first attack occurred in the early morning when two men were out hunting and surprised a grizzly bear. Both hunters were injured during the encounter; however, both were able to successfully drive the bear away using bear spray. Later that evening, less than a mile away, two hunting partners were traveling together when they also surprised a grizzly bear. One of the hunters sustained injuries during the attack before his partner was able to drive the bear away using a gun. Officials were unable to determine if the same bear was involved in both incidents.

The fourth incident occurred later in September, also in the Gravelly range but further south. A hunter was moving through an area of downed timber when he came upon a grizzly bear at close range. The bear attacked the hunter who then reportedly fired multiple shots at the bear until it left. The hunter later received medical attention.

Reflecting on these four incidents, we can learn a few things. We know most grizzly bear attacks result from surprise encounters and, in 2019, this was the case in all four incidents. We know more attacks tend to occur during Fall months and, in 2019, three of the four incidents occurred in September. We also know hunters tend to be at a higher risk of surprising bears, evident in 2019 with three of the four incidents involving hunters. In the first and non-hunter encounter, we are reminded to be aware of not just what’s in front of us, but also of what’s behind us.

Reflecting on human-bear conflicts can also remind us about how we can reduce the risk of negative encounters while outdoors. Following established recommendations and tips for safety in bear country, we emphasize several key points in our bear safety trainings, including:

  1. Actively assess the surroundings. It’s essential to be aware of your surroundings and watch for bear sign (e.g., tracks, scat, digging), especially in areas where hearing or visibility is limited. Dense vegetation, habitat with bear foods, and uneven terrain (which reduces hearing/visibility) increase risk and require heightened vigilance. Situational awareness is the single most important aspect of bear safety.
  2. Travel in a group. It has been shown that traveling in a group of three or more people is statistically safest. All four incidents in 2019 involved group sizes of two or less.
  3. Make noise. When given the chance, bears naturally want to avoid humans. Make noise as often as possible to avoid surprising a bear, especially where visibility or hearing is limited. Your voice and hand-clapping work well (bear bells are not effective). Three of four 2019 incidents involved hunters. Hunters, who are often intentionally quiet, should step up all other safety/prevention methods and be extra vigilant.
  4. Have bear spray at the ready. Bear spray is proven to be an effective tool. Two out of the four incidents that occurred in 2019 involved bear spray being used and successfully deterring the bear, preventing further injuries. Make sure your spray is quickly accessible, and know how to use it. Inert bear spray training canisters are available for practicing, and many resources are available online and with bear spray manufacturers. Carry bear spray in your hand when you’re in high risk habitat or reduced visibility/hearing. Each person in your group should have bear spray and as a group you should discuss how to respond in the event of an encounter.
  5. Avoid high risk times/areas. Finally, there are certain times of day and of the year, as well as certain areas in which people are more likely to encounter a bear. Dawn, dusk, and at night present higher risk. The majority of encounters in 2019 occurred at dawn or dusk, in September. Particular areas or habitats that put you at higher risk include dense vegetation and areas where there are bear food sources (e.g., berry patches). The fourth incident in 2019 occurred in dense vegetation and the hunter surprised the bear. Understanding how bears live on the landscape can help us understand how better to avoid conflicts.

Prepared, safety-minded backcountry users learn about bear behavior and various risk factors as well as the appropriate prevention activities before heading into the backcountry. 2019 taught us that backcountry use during dawn or dusk, in dense vegetation, without making noise, and traveling in groups of two or fewer people increases the risk of an incident. Reducing your risk of a negative bear encounter with the five approaches above will help you enjoy your time outdoors, stay safe, and keep bears wild.

For more information, visit fwp.mt.gov or igbconline.org, and follow us on Facebook or Patagonia Action Works to find out about upcoming bear safety training events and opportunities.