2021 Has Been a Year of Brutal Bear Attacks—And the Worst May Be Yet to Come
Human conflict with bears is on the rise in the continental U.S. Here's what you need to know
To celebrate the launch of our brand-new Danger Issue, all week long we’ll be publishing close calls and cautionary tales of the most dangerous game and the big guns you need to stop them. So swallow that lump in your throat and keep reading.
Long-time Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Grizzly Bear Management Specialist Kevin Frey suspected the bear might still be at the scene of the attack. A backcountry guide and wildlife photographer had been mauled by a grizzly boar in the Baker’s Hole area of Yellowstone National Park and Frey, along with an interagency crew of bear specialists, was there to investigate. Frey’s suspicion was confirmed when his black mouth cur Loki went on alert—and then suddenly, a huge grizzly came charging out of the brush right at them.
“That’s the full force of nature at its most extreme,” says Frey, who’s been charged a handful of times in his line of work. “In North America, when a grizzly blows out of the brush straight at you, that’s about as intense as it gets.”
“There was no moment when it stood up, huffed at us, and then charged,” adds Frey. “He just came right out of the brush and never made a sound. He was coming full bore at us. His ears were down. He was actually focused on me and the dog because the dog’s barking was probably his biggest instinctual challenge.”
Frey and his team had come fully armed. Even so, they waited a second before shooting.
“Some bears will charge you and slowly lift their head up and get big in the chest like they’re going to stop,” says Frey. “This one never did that. He floundered in the snow and just kept digging to come for us. That’s when we decided to shoot.”
The response team put multiple rounds into the big bruin, which immediately dropped. The bear had been protecting a moose carcass. A post-mortem inspection revealed the bear had grizzly fur in its stomach, which suggested he had been defending or pushed another grizzly off of the kill. That tragic attack occurred early in the spring, which is a rare time of year for bear attacks.
2021’s Fatal Bear Attacks in North America—So Far
April 17: West Yellowstone Grizzly Mauling
Backcountry guide and wildlife photographer Carl Mock was attacked and killed by a grizzly in the Baker’s Hole area of Yellowstone National Park. The old boar was defending a moose carcass. A recently released fatality report suggests that the bruin was likely especially aggressive because it had fought with another grizzly over the kill.
April 30: Black Bear Kills Colorado Woman in Surprising Attack
A woman died in a rare black bear attack in southwest Colorado. The 39-year-old woman was killed while walking her dogs. A 10-year-old sow was responsible for the killing. Human remains were found in the sow’s stomach, and in the stomach of one of the bear’s two yearlings. All three bears were euthanized following the attack. It was the third lethal bear attack in Colorado in the past 50 years.
May 4: Professor Killed by Female Grizzly in Alberta,
University of Calgary professor David Lertzman went missing after a trail run near Waiparous, Alberta. Local officials believe that a female grizzly chased Lertzman from behind and pushed him off a 980-foot embankment to his death. Despite a concerted search and trapping effort, the sow was never located.
May 25: Another Fatal Bear Attack in Alberta,
Just 25-miles away from where David Lertzman was killed, a female grizzly mauled a 68-year-old woman who had been walking on private property near her home near the town of Water Valley. A sow grizzly with worn teeth was put down by local authorities. DNA testing revealed that it was not the same bear that killed Lertzman.
July 6: Camper in Montana Dragged from Tent and Mauled by Grizzly
Leah Davis Lokan was ripped from her tent and killed by a grizzly bear in the middle of the night at a campsite in Ovando, Montana. That night, the bear also raided a local chicken coop. Officials used night vision technology to gun down a big grizzly boar later that week when it returned to another local chicken coop.
July 31: Black Bear Responsible for Alberta’s Third Bear-Related Fatality of the Year
A 26-year-old was mauled by a black bear sow in a remote region of Alberta in the province’s third deadly bear attack of the year. The victim was working for a helicopter company that transports tree planters into isolated regions for reforestation projects. Authorities quickly killed the adult female bear responsible for the attack. The sow did not have any cubs.
Bear-Human Conflicts Are Trending Up, But Not Fatal Attacks
While there have been a number of fatal bear attacks this year, it’s on par with the number of other high-fatality years in the past. However bear conflicts—which include negative encounters between bears and humans, pets, livestock, and property—are on the rise in the Lower 48. The main cause for this spike is evident: There are more grizzly bears (which are more aggressive than black bears) than there have been since grizzly numbers dwindled in the 1970s. They also occupy a wider range than they used to.
“Conflicts tend to increase in areas where bears are increasing in numbers and expanding their range—as we have seen for American black bears throughout North America in recent decades, and particularly during years of natural food shortages,” says Frank T. van Manen, a Supervisory Research Wildlife Biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “For grizzly bears, we have documented an increase in the number of human-bear conflicts in areas like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where they have expanded their range about three-fold over four decades and increasingly occupy areas where human use and influence on the landscape is greater.”
It’s not just more bears. There are more people recreating in bear country than ever, and a lot of them don’t know how to recreate safely. Following restrictions on indoor activities and international travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic, people from all over the country have turned their attention to public land in the western U.S. The sudden increase in visitors has put local land managers in a bind.
“Some people don’t even realize that there can be grizzly bears around,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley. “We have more people moving to the West. We have more people recreating in grizzly bear territory. There’s record visitation at National Park Service and Forest Service areas. Every biologist I talk to is like ‘there are people camped all over the place.’ And a lot of people are coming from elsewhere and don’t know that their gas grill or cooler that they leave on the picnic table on the campsite will be a potential bear attractant. Most of those conflicts are preventable.”
Cooley adds that many bear conflicts are also occurring on private lands, where federal and state wildlife management agencies don’t have jurisdiction. There, the responsibility to reduce conflicts falls to local governments and municipalities—and the regulations they choose to implement.
Though bears are apex predators, the vast majority of bears in the vast majority of encounters will not go after humans. Several factors contribute to bear attacks, chiefly the defensive nature of bears. A lot of bear attacks are prompted by a mother sow protecting her cubs or a bear defending a kill. Another dangerous scenario is when a person is in close physical proximity to a bear and but both have a lack of visibility—for example in areas with thick brush. When a bear does decide to go on the offensive, the results can be devastating.
“It’s just their structure, their physiology, the crushing power of their jaws,” says Cooley. “If they really want to hurt somebody, they can.”
2021’s Notable Non-Fatal Bear Attacks
May 18: Surveyor Mauled in Alaska
An Alaska surveyor survived a brutal bear attack in which the bear grabbed a quarter of the man’s face between its jaws. He bled profusely from his head alone in the bush for an hour as he waited for help.
May 31: Dog and Bear Conflict in California
A teenager in California sprang into action to save her dogs from a brown-phase black bear sow that wandered into her yard. She pushed the bear off the backyard wall.
June 16: Woman Chased By Bears and Gets Lost
A group of bears forced a woman off a popular hiking trail near Butte, Alaska. She couldn’t find the trail again and went missing for a day and a half before making her way back to a road.
June 16: Girl In Hammock Attacked by Bear
A black bear attacked a 16-year-old girl while she was sleeping in a hammock in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The bruin was quickly euthanized.
June 24: Bear Breaks into California Home
A California man shot a black bear that broke into his home in search of food.
June 27: Man Forced to Jump in River to Escape Bear Attack
An Alaska man’s 13-month-old border collie provoked a mother brown bear to attack, which forced the man to jump into the Kenai River to escape. The dog went missing following the attack.
August 10: Grizzly Attack in Yellowstone
Two hikers fended off a grizzly attack in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park, and were able to escape with minor injuries.
August 10: Polar Bear Attack in Nunavut
A group of three locals at a small Nunavut village barely survived a rare polar bear attack.
August 19: Coastal Brown Bear Bites Tech’s Thigh
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game technician was attacked by a coastal brown bear that chomped his thigh. His coworker dropped the bear with a 12-gauge Remington 870.
Why Are Grizzly Bears Still Listed Under the Endangered Species Act in the Lower 48?
Grizzly bears are responsible for most fatal bear attacks—and dangerous encounters. In Alaska, grizzlies are not a protected species and are subject to state-managed hunts like other big game species. But in the Lower 48, grizzly bears have been listed as threatened by the USFWS since 1975. At that time, there were only between 700 and 800 bruins in the continental U.S. Today, that total has risen to over 2,000 animals. Naturally, the increased grizzly bear population coinciding with increased bear conflict has renewed calls for bear control, which would limit grizzly populations and potentially, conflict.
This March, the USFWS recommended keeping grizzlies listed as a threatened species after a 5-year review. The suggestion looked at the overall bear population, not distinct populations, though there are six distinct units involved in the bear restoration. Currently, two of those units—the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Divide ecosystems—have healthy and sustainable bear populations. The Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems have vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, the Bitterroot or North Cascade ecosystems remain without resident grizzlies.
In the last 15 years, the USFWS twice tried to delist grizzlies in the Yellowstone area. Both attempts were overturned in federal court because of lawsuits from animal-rights and environmental organizations. Cooley says that the USFWS is considering attempting to delist that population again because it is biologically stable, but no decision to do so has been made.
“We worked hard for geez, 40 years, to get them to recovery level,” says Frey. “We’ve met all the criteria years ago. What hangs up the delisting are concerns over other factors, but we’ve met the recovery requirements. With the safeguards that we have in place to make sure that the population doesn’t get into trouble and crash again, I think it’s fine. Yeah, grizzly bears should be delisted.”
The Most Dangerous Time of Year for Bear Attacks is Only Just Beginning
Despite the high-profile bear conflicts that have taken place so far in 2021, the worst may still be yet to come. In autumn, bears enter what’s called hyperphagia, where they go after as much food as possible before going into hibernation. This makes for more active bears—and more encounters with humans. Unfortunately, this period also coincides directly with hunting season.
“It’s the season when bears are most focused to find food and gain weight,” says Frey. “It’s just like that movie The Perfect Storm. You’ve got all these elements that come together at the same time. They’re the biggest thing in the forest, so they don’t always pay attention [to their surroundings]. And it’s really easy for hunters to walk right up on a bear.”
Frey especially notes dangers distinct to archery hunters.
“Archery hunters are being super quiet, everybody’s got full camo on and some kind of scent blocker,” he says. “It’s all the wrong things to do to avoid a bear encounter, but that’s part of the pursuit. When you’re looking for elk or deer, you’ve got to keep an eye out for bear sign.”
Frey, Cooley, and van Manen all preach the importance of preparedness for anyone traveling in bear country, regardless of whether you’re intent on arrowing a big bull elk or just peeping the fall foliage.
“Be vigilant whether recent incidents have occurred in a particular area or not,” says van Manen. “Land management and wildlife management agencies in our region provide excellent information for recreationists via their websites, visitor facilities, and trailheads.”
Frey suggests carrying bear spray even if you’re armed, reasoning that it’s better to have more defense tools at your disposal than less. None of the wildlife managers suggest that the presence of bears is an adequate reason not to head out, only that it’s better to be prepared than sorry.