The death of Brian Matayoshi in a grizzly bear charge last summer was a classic conundrum for the people who work toward the day bears and humans can share the northern Rocky Mountains.
"We are providing education, but it's not being received," Chris Servheen told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee at its winter meeting in Missoula on Wednesday.
As coordinator for grizzly recovery with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Servheen keeps track of bear incidents throughout the Rocky Mountains. And this year's run-ins appear to show we have successful strategies to avoid conflict, but we're not using them.
"The problem with communication is the illusion it's actually happening," Servheen said of bear-aware efforts. "My candid opinion is we have not been very successful at this at all. Perhaps we need to go to a marketing firm on Madison Avenue - they're really good at getting us to buy things we don't need or want."
A preliminary review of 2011 bear attacks included 83 incidents. Of those, about three quarters took place in the Yellowstone National Park area, with the remaining 24 percent happening in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Four times out of five, no one in a grizzly charge got injured. Two resulted in people getting killed. Hunters were involved in 38 percent of the charges, while hikers made up 35 percent. The remainder included a mix of anglers, campers, ranch-hands doing fencing and other backcountry chores.
Servheen said a significant factor was that more than half the people charged by grizzlies weren't carrying bear spray. Just 29 percent were carrying the spray cans, although it was uncertain if they were deployed.
Of the two fatal incidents in Yellowstone Park this year, the death of Matayoshi is best understood. On July 6, he and his wife Marylyn were two of many hikers on the popular Wapati Lake trail. They'd seen a female grizzly and two cubs far across an open field. Marylyn Matayoshi took a picture of them, which showed three tiny dots in a sea of sagebrush. The couple opted to continue their journey.
But a cloud of mosquitoes convinced them to turn back shortly after they entered a copse of trees. Unfortunately, the grizzly family was also heading into the trees behind them, and now wound up on a collision course on the trail.
When the couple saw the bears, they turned back up the trail and started running and yelling. Servheen said that apparently triggered a chase response in the sow grizzly, similar to running away from a big dog. Brian Matayoshi ran 173 yards from where he first saw the bears before the sow caught him from behind.
Even then, the attack might have been minor but for an unfortunate bite. The bear bit Matayoshi in the thigh and punctured his femoral artery, probably causing him to bleed to death. He also got a serious head wound, but it was uncertain if that was caused by the bear or his fall to the ground.
"Their behavior during the chase contributed to the behavior of the bear and resulted in the death of Mr. Matayoshi," Servheen said. Matayoshi's wife hid under a fallen log just five yards away from her husband. The grizzly reached over and lifted her by her backpack, but then dropped her and left the area with her cubs.
Between her efforts to call 9-1-1 with a cellphone and the witness accounts of other hikers who heard the incident, investigators were able to build almost a minute-by-minute account of the attack. Their conclusion was the bear had a natural surprise reaction and should be left alone. She had never been captured or tagged before, and had no previous record of charging people.
But on Aug. 26, the same female bear killed and partially ate Michigan hiker John Wallace on the Mary Mountain trail in the Hayden Valley of Yellowstone. Details of Wallace's death are scarce because he was hiking alone and no one else witnessed the attack.
Park bear managers trapped and tested several bears in the area before getting a DNA match on the suspect sow Sept. 28. She was killed Oct. 1, and her two cubs were also captured and placed in the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center at West Yellowstone.
In both cases, the victims were doing things bear managers recommend avoiding: Running away and hiking alone. Neither victim carried bear spray.
To further complicate bear strategies, British Columbia Ministry of Environment representative Tony Hamilton said a new study shows a growing tendency of Canadian black bears to make predatory attacks on humans.
"We're used to defensive attacks by grizzly bears, that are usually triggered by protecting cubs or food or space," Hamilton said. "But now we're seeing black bears that have typically had no previous human contact looking at us as potential prey. We need to re-educate the public."
But how do we explain the rule to be nonconfrontational around grizzlies but aggressive toward black bears, when people don't seem to be reading any of the signs on the bulletin board? Hamilton said after years of trying to make the messages simpler, this new complexity is sending everyone back to the drawing board.