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Running into polar bears

Do polar bears stalk humans? Are bear attacks a given when humans live and recreate in bear country? Is there anything we can do to prevent these tragedies? I am often asked these questions because I study bear-human conflicts as part of my research program.

Let's consider the first question: Are polar bears natural-born stalkers of humans? If this were true we would see far more polar bear attacks than we do. Take this, for instance: in spite of the fact that humans and polar bears have co-existed in Churchill (the "Polar Bear Capital of the World") for 300 years, only two fatalities have ever been recorded. Just two! Yes, there have been a few non-fatal attacks, but when analyzed closely we see that most often the bears involved were surprised, felt threatened, or were acting to defending themselves. In Alaska, there have been only two polar bear-inflicted fatalities in 130 years, but both were avoidable in my opinion. Of course, polar bears are potentially dangerous and must be treated with respect. But is it their innate inclination to see humans as prey? Apparently not. In short, polar bears been given a bad rap for misdeeds they have not committed.

Let's consider the next question: Are bear attacks a given when people work and recreate in bear country? In Alaska, I have examined nearly 700 bear-human conflicts that occurred over a span of 130 years. This analysis has revealed that the number of incidents is directly related to the State's population; or, stated another way, the more people that enter bear country, the more incidents you'll have. Bears haven't gotten meaner; there are just more people - and that means more problems. Also, in the vast majority of incidents, human behavior (or misbehavior) was a contributing factor. This suggests that a change in human behavior can greatly reduce the likelihood of a bear attack.

Finally, let's consider the last question: Is there anything I can do to avoid a bear attack? There is much you can do, and if you follow these simple rules, you can reduce the risk of attack to virtually zero:

  • Never enter bear country without a deterrent like pepper spray or a gun. Never. Bear spray has three effects on bears: 1) gives the user a reason not to run... that's crucial! 2) the hiss of the spray and expanding cloud startles/scares the bears, 3) the active ingredient - capsaicin - is a very harsh chemical that stuns them. So it is not surprising it works. What is surprising are those who are reluctant to embrace it as part of the defensive tool chest.

  • If at all possible, do not go out alone, as bear attacks are primarily on single persons.

  • If you encounter a bear: ready your deterrent, group together (side by side) and stand your ground while the bear thinks through the situation. If after a minute the bear has not moved on, then, as a group, back up and leave the bear. If it approaches, spray or shoot it... otherwise, leave the area and have a spine-tingling story to share with your friends and family.

Bear attacks are avoidable. Be respectful and responsible and you will enjoy bear country without fear.

Credits - WorldwideRunning.com would like to thank Polar Bear Marathon organizer Albert Martens for the permission to reprint the article "Polar Bear Attacks" by Dr. Tom Smith. Dr. Tom Smith is an associate professor and research wildlife biologist focused on North American bear conservation and conflict management.


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