Several Bear Attacks Across America This Week Offer Lessons In Backcountry Safety

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It has been a weekend full of hair-raising headlines out of backcountry America as a spate of bear attacks on Thursday left at least six people injured from Alaska to Michigan. The four incidents, while jarring, resulted in no fatalities, offering Americans valuable lessons in how to survive a bear attack.

Attack No. 1

What Happened: Yellowstone National Park officials said two visitors hiking on a trail near Canyon Village in the north-central part of the park accidentally came between a grizzly and its cub when the mom attacked. The pair was treated for bites and claw wounds before being released.

What We Can Learn: The hikers came prepared for travel in bear country with a can of bear repellent (similar to pepper spray), which may have saved their lives. They first sprayed the repellent and then played dead as soon as the bear attacked. It retreated soon afterward. Yellowstone representative Al Nash said the sow grizzly was simply “acting on instinct” to defend its cub. Indeed, most bear attacks occur after humans find themselves between a mother and her offspring, and park officials encourage hikers to travel in groups of three or more, make noise and carry bear repellent as a precautionary measure. They note that playing dead when attacked by a bear during a surprise encounter in Yellowstone has resulted in just minor injuries 75 percent of the time, while fighting back has resulted in very severe injuries 80 percent of the time.

Attack No. 2

What Happened: Another grizzly bear attacked two U.S. Bureau of Land Management contract workers on Thursday in Idaho, about 70 miles west of Yellowstone. As in the earlier incident, both victims were treated for bites and claw wounds before being released.

What We Can Learn: Grizzly attacks have become more common across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming thanks to a rebound in the bears’ population over the past 20 years. Wild grizzles have killed four people in the Yellowstone region in the past three years and wounded at least three others in the Rockies this year. Like the other attack near Yellowstone this week, what saved the two workers was a can of bear repellent, which contains active ingredients derived from capsicum that are an extreme irritant of the skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs of bears, humans and other mammals. The spray tends to stop the aggression in bears by reducing their ability to breathe and see clearly, giving victims time to leave the area. The U.S. National Park Service cautions that it isn't to be used like bug spray or on tents and equipment.

Attack No. 3

What Happened: A hunter mauled by a brown bear near Alaska’s remote Brooks Range survived 36 hours in the wilderness before rescue teams found him on Saturday at about 3 a.m. Fairbanks Memorial Hospital reported that the man identified in local reports as James Tuttle was in stable condition and was expected to survive.

What We Can Learn: Details of this incident remain sketchy due to the remote location, but the Air National Guard has said Tuttle had help from a trained medic who happened to be with a nearby hunting party and was able to minimize blood loss. The hunting team reported that it subsequently killed the bear, a standard procedure after an unprovoked attack on a human.

Attack No. 4

What Happened: Culminating a grisly day for bear attacks in the U.S., 12-year-old Abigail Wetherell survived a mauling by a black bear on a dirt road near a cabin on her grandfather’s property in northwestern Michigan on Thursday. Although her injuries required surgery, she too survived the ordeal.

What We Can Learn: Wetherell attempted to run away from the black bear when she first saw it on her jog that Thursday night, and that’s when it mauled her. She screamed for help and tried to get up and run again, but the bear knocked her down to the ground. Only when Wetherell played dead did the bear leave her alone. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources believes the state has as many as 10,000 black bears, and it recommends talking to them in a stern voice and showing strength, rather than screaming, running and showing weakness. Meanwhile, the National Park Service warns not to play dead too early. Instead, stand your ground or make yourself look bigger than you are and wait until the bear makes contact -- or the nanosecond before contact -- before dropping to the ground. Don’t get up again until several minutes later to ensure the bear has left the immediate area.

Bear-human interactions typically rise in the dog days of summer as bears across North America prepare for hibernation. Part of that process involves gaining body fat and weight to survive without sustenance over the cold winter months.

The National Park Service recommends that anyone hiking in bear country watch these videos prior to setting off into the wild to be fully prepared in case of an emergency. For more safety tips, visit the service’s “Your Safety in Bear Country” microsite.

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