Grizzly Bears

Grizzly bears, although not found in Texas, do live in a number of western states and Alaska, all places where Texans may have visited or will travel this summer. Giants of the bear world, a mature male grizzly may weigh between 500 and 900 pounds with some tipping the scales at more than 1000 pounds.

A few years ago on a visit to Denali National Park in Alaska we saw what at first looked much like a slowly moving pile of hay about 20 yards away from our tour bus. It was shuffling slowly but gracefully across the tundra, belying her massive weight. To her right, a fuzzy cub foraged the same plants on which its mother was dining. They completely ignored us.

Fuzzy and cute maybe, but these were grizzly bears, Ursus horribilis, the “terrible bear,” an omnivore with a well-earned reputation for a short temper and unpredictable behavior. Needless to say, we didn’t get out of the bus. Once numerous through much of the western mountain states as well huge areas of Canada and most of Alaska, their numbers have been greatly reduced and their range severely limited.

Grizzlies come in a variety of colors, from almost black to brown, straw-colored and blond with a frosty or grizzled appearance. They have a characteristic dished or indented face and muzzle and a large hump of muscle and fat over their shoulders. The bears’ claws are often up to six inches long. A single blow from its paw can break the back of a full-grown moose. Adult grizzlies may stand 7 feet tall on their hind legs.

Although unprovoked grizzly attacks are rare, shortly before our trip, a man and woman camping in a remote Alaska location were attacked in their tent and killed. Although they had a rifle (they were not in a National Park) it had not been fired. The bear, described as a “rogue,” was located by authorities and destroyed.

Bear attacks in Alaska have recently been on the increase even in urban areas like Anchorage. This past July 23rd, a man and his daughter unloading their luggage about 11 p.m. at a resort in Anchorage heard what sounded like a fight punctuated with growls. Running toward the sounds they found a woman at the edge of the parking lot being mauled by a huge brown bear. The rescuers ran toward them yelling “Hey! Hey!” and “Get back!” The bear stood up, rising to an estimated 7 feet, and sized up its puny human interlopers. Amazingly, after a moment’s hesitation, the animal dropped to all fours and ran away. Suffering a broken jaw, torn scalp, and punctured arms, legs, and buttocks the victim luckily was expected to make a full recovery.

The greatest danger of attack comes if a bear – any bear – is surprised, particularly if cubs are present. Park Rangers say to be alert and aware and make sufficient noise so that a sudden encounter is less likely. But, don’t whistle, a grizzly may think you sound like a marmot, one of its favorite snacks. If a bear approaches, speak to it calmly but firmly. “Hey, bear! Hey bear! Everything’s all right. Sorry to intrude. Just relax.” (This may sound silly, but that’s what experts recommend.) Raise your arms straight up and wave them slowly from side to side. Then, gradually back away.

Don’t turn your back and never, ever run from a bear, unless you are absolutely certain you can escape. Bears are way too fast, and fleeing will likely trigger a full-fledged assault. Carry bear repellant (a concentrated form of pepper spray) and a small air horn. The blast of sound from the horn can sometimes discourage an attack. If you can’t escape and bear repellant has no effect, fall to the ground, roll into a ball and protect your head and neck with your hands. Play dead. (Unfortunately, this play-acting may become fact!) When a bear discovers you’re not a threat, it will often stop the attack. Firearms are prohibited in National Parks, a policy of which I disapprove. Rangers say dangerous human/bear encounters are rare in the park. But, that’s small consolation if you are one of the privileged few who are attacked.

Alaska is one of the few remaining places in North America that the magnitude, grandeur and power of nature are undiluted and untrammeled by modern civilization. Instead of visiting a zoo where animals are caged, in much of Alaska you can literally be inside the “cage” with them. Exciting huh? If you have the opportunity, don’t miss this exhilarating experience, but without the bear attacks.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.