Reintroduction of grizzlies into Bitterroots poses minimal threat to people

"Morally and scientifically, I believe that the grizzly bear belongs in the Bitterroot ecosystem and I support reintroduction. However, on a personal basis, I am against reintroduction because of my fear of the animal."

- From the public comment record

on grizzly bear reintroduction

Sometimes, grizzly bears kill people.

Chris Servheen does not deny - or want to deny - that grizzly bears are dangerous. Nor does he deny that some people are so afraid of bears that they oppose any attempt by the government to bring back grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

In fact, most people who wrote the government criticizing a proposal to transplant grizzlies to the Bitterroot Mountains said they fear bear attacks. On hikers, rock climbers, picnickers, schoolchildren, fishermen and - some said - any Bitterrooter who dared venture into the back yard.

"The issue of public safety is legitimate," said Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's an issue that demands and deserves a response."

But the most appropriate response, in Servheen's estimation, is one that puts the risk of bear attack in context and in proportion. "While people have been killed and injured by grizzly bears in grizzly bear habitat, the risk of being killed by a grizzly bear in grizzly bear habitat is extremely small," he said.

"Most people don't see grizzly bears, never mind encounter bears," Servheen said. "And the probability of a dangerous encounter is even lower than that."

"Grizzlies kill people in Yellowstone. Grizzlies kill people in Glacier. Grizzlies kill people in Canada, and by God, I know grizzlies kill people in Alaska. What in the hell are you thinking of?"

These are the facts.

Since 1950, grizzly bears have killed one person and injured another in the northern Continental Divide ecosystem outside of Glacier National Park. Both of the victims were hunters.

In 1956, a hunter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness shot and injured a grizzly bear. The wounded animal then killed the hunter.

In 1985, a pheasant hunter in the Mission Valley shot and wounded a grizzly. The animal then attacked and injured the hunter.

Between 1913 and 1995, bears killed nine people in Glacier National Park. Four were visitors, five were employees of the park concessionaire. Between 1839 and 1994, bears killed five people in Yellowstone National Park. Three others died in grizzly attacks in the Yellowstone ecosystem, outside park boundaries.

Stephen Herrero, the University of Calgary researcher whose "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" is the most-cited work on grizzly-human encounters, documented 126 grizzly-inflicted injuries in 12 national parks in Alaska, Canada, Wyoming and Montana between 1900 and 1979.

Most of those attacks were attributed to roadside panhandler bears, conditioned to human food, unafraid of humans.

According to park records, a person is five times more likely to drown in Glacier Park as to die in a bear attack, three times more likely to die in a car wreck and twice as likely to die in a climbing accident. In Yellowstone Park, more people have died from falls (24), drowning (101), airplane crashes (20), burns from hot springs (19) and Indian battles (7) as from bear attacks.

Servheen, however, does not like to use numbers from national parks to assess the likelihood of attack if grizzlies are reintroduced in the Bitterroots.

"In Glacier," he said, "you have high densities of uninformed visitors. Most people who visit national parks cannot even cut firewood."

And the density of bears and people is high. Glacier has about one grizzly per eight square miles, Yellowstone one grizzly per 30 square miles. Combined, the parks count more than 5 million visitors a year.

In the wilderness, visitors are more knowledgeable and experienced, Servheen said. "They are skilled backcountry people." And the density of bears and people is lower.

A fully recovered population of grizzly bears in the Bitterroot ecosystem would number 100 to 300 bears after 50 to 110 years. That would be a population density of one bear per 25 to 75 square miles.

So Servheen compares the potential of attack in the Bitterroots to that in the Bob Marshall - where he knows of one fatality, the hunter in 1956. Or to the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, where there have been no injuries from grizzly bear attacks in at least the past 20 years.

In 100 years, with a full complement of grizzlies, there would probably be between 0 and 1 injury per year in the Bitterroot ecosystem, and one bear-inflicted death every few decades.

"If one life is lost, the cost is too high."

Avoiding attack by a grizzly bear is not just a matter of probability, Servheen said. "If you have some basic knowledge of how to avoid grizzly bears and how to avoid surprising grizzly bears, then you make the probability of a potential encounter with a bear even more minute.

"As a visitor to grizzly bear country, you have control over your probability of encountering a grizzly bear."

You don't walk off trail at dusk. You don't hike at night. You don't do things that could lead you into an encounter with a female grizzly and her cubs. You don't try to get a closer look or a closer photograph.

Most injuries come in surprise encounters, said Servheen. "A bear surprises a person and the person surprises the bear. Both are very excited for a moment. Often, there is very little injury to the person. The bear is just trying to get out of there."

Most grizzly bears don't want anything to do with people, and in fact avoid people, he said. A few years ago, researchers filmed grizzly bears at high elevations to see how they responded when hikers came up a trail. The grizzlies moved off the trail, out of the way until the people were past.

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In the 18 years that he has studied grizzly-human interactions, bear educator Chuck Bartlebaugh has documented what he believes is a "clear pattern of inappropriate activities" in most maulings.

The last four fatalities, all in Yellowstone and Glacier parks, were precipitated by photographers pushing too close to a grizzly, he said.

Two of the deaths were semi-professional photographers "on a mission to get photographs worth selling," Bartlebaugh said. "They pursued the bear even after it attempted to leave. They crowded the animal's space. The bear, in both cases, showed considerable restraint for quite a period of time."

The other two deaths were amateur photographers who told park employees that they wanted to get photos of grizzly bears, then hiked alone and possibly quietly into high-density bear areas.

The attacks, Bartlebaugh said, are proof of why the government needs a nationwide - tourists to grizzly country come from every state - public education campaign, with or without the bear's return to the Bitterroot.

"This animal is an adversary unmatched in this part of the world. It is an absolute monarch in his domain with extraordinary capabilities of speed, power, strength and viciousness. As a human facing such a muscle mass, you haven't got a prayer."

Mark Matheny has hunted and fished in grizzly country for 25 years. He never thought he would encounter a bear. More likely, he told himself, I'll be struck by lightning.

Then came the morning, in the fall of 1992, when Matheny and a friend took a nice buck in the Gallatin Mountains, hung it in the trees and headed out in search of another.

"We were coming down the trail when we saw the bear, a mother on her back feeding three cubs," Matheny said. "She was surprised. We caught her in a real vulnerable position. She charged."

Matheny's hunting partner had bear spray in his backpack, but the attack came so quickly that he couldn't retrieve the canister in time. His partner dove off the trail. Matheny didn't have time.

"There she was," he said. "She bit into my chest. I was still on my feet. She bit me in the face, across my throat and ripped the jaw muscle. They were real fast bites. Next thing I know, I'm on the ground and she's got my head in her mouth, crushing my skull."

His friend looked up and saw not one bear, but four in a circle around Matheny. He found his pepper spray and fired. The bear dropped Matheny's head.

But he didn't spray enough or in the right direction, and the grizzly pounced back on Matheny like a mouse, this time ripping his arm. "That's when Fred emptied his can, and she took off gasping for air."

"Thanks to God, a friend and pepper spray, I'm here," Matheny said.

Matheny was a general contractor at the time of his encounter with the bear. Now he is president of Universal Defense Alternative Products, a Bozeman company that markets a high-potency brand of bear spray and a variety of holsters - one for walking sticks, one for the hip, another for the chest - that provide quick access to spray canisters during an attack.

He was instrumental recently in convincing the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to endorse the use of pepper spray to fend off bears in an attack.

"The bear spray is a precaution," he said. "People wear seat belts, and there's a reason for that. You can drive as defensively as you want, but there's still the possibility of something going wrong."

So, too, for bear spray. It is dangerous, Matheny believes, to suggest that bear attacks will not happen. They will. "That is why it's wild out there - because it is unpredictable."

He has, since his attack, returned to grizzly country to hunt and fish. But he always - "religiously" - carries bear spray. "Now it's just part of my gear, like putting on my hat or boots."

"We enjoy the outdoors and this will seriously affect our daily life. Enjoying our fruit orchard, stepping outside to gather firewood, getting the mail, any normal activity, we will have to check for bears."

If grizzlies are reintroduced in the Bitterroot wilderness, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have no tolerance for bears that leave public land.

"I want to emphasize that the management agencies would never want grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Valley," Servheen said. "'If grizzly bears left the public land boundary, we would immediately go after them and catch them and get them out of the valley."

"We don't want bears walking up and down the roads. We don't want them on subdivision lawns. We will have zero tolerance for grizzly bears on private land. We don't want them there either. It's not going to happen."

He's heard and understands the fears, Servheen said. "People talk about not letting their kids outside after school. And about canceling school field trips. But we will not have grizzly bears on private land in the Bitterroot Valley. We want them way up in the wilderness, and that's where we'll keep them."

"The absence of grizzlies makes the Bitterroot ecosystem one of the last places in the lower 48 where humans can go to experience genuine wilderness without the known presence of dangerous and awesome predators of the grizzlies' reputation."

This is how Matheny puts it: "Bears own our dreams when we are camping or sleeping in a tent. I get nervous. I don't deny it. When we're out there in the wild, our imagination takes hold."

And while the imagination is likely to concoct a danger greater than reality, Matheny would never advise anyone that they are bearproof.

"Any wild animal deserves our reverence and respect," he said. "And space."

Servheen puts it like this: "I would never hesitate to take my kids into grizzly bear habitat. That is my personal feeling. The benefits of having a full ecosystem in a wilderness area and the benefits of potentially seeing a grizzly bear are great."

Yes, Servheen said, grizzly bears are dangerous. But the probability of encountering a grizzly bear in a dangerous situation is very, very small. And there are many, many common sense ways to minimize the risk of encountering a bear.

"One magical thing about grizzly bears is that anybody who has ever seen one can tell you the time and the place and the details of that day. That tells you that grizzly bears carry a special value," he said.

"There are very few places where we can see bears and participate in the wildness that was once throughout all of North America," Servheen said. "If any place can afford the potential, it should be these big wilderness areas, these big blocks of public land."

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