A little after 6:30 p.m. on May 29, a black bear attacked 53-year-old Wasilla resident Mike Becwar, who was out jogging near Pump Station 5, where he works as a wastewater treatment specialist.
In some ways Becwar was fortunate. Speaking from his hospital bed a week or so later, Becwar noted he didn’t lose any appendages or suffer any damage to vital organs. The injuries he did sustain — two broken shoulder blades, various muscle and nerve damage — are expected to heal.
While Becwar fits the demographics of someone who has a higher likelihood of being attacked by a bear — he’s white, a male, an Alaska resident between the ages of 50 and 60, and not only works outdoors but also recreates outdoors — the situation in which he was attacked was statistically unlikely.
According to a report titled “Hospitalizations and Deaths Resulting from Bear Attacks in Alaska, 2000–2017,” a vast majority of attacks involved brown bears, most commonly in the Gulf Coast area of the state. The report also indicates that bears more commonly attack if protecting a cub or a kill site. The bear that attacked Becwar was an adult male black bear, with no cubs and no kill site in the area.
BEAR ATTACKS ON THE RISE
Published by the Alaska Section of Epidemiology in August 2019, the report presents an analysis of all bear attacks in Alaska from 2000-2017, regardless of the victims’ residency. It primarily used data from the Alaska Trauma Registry. The report’s authors also reviewed death certificates from the Alaska Health Analytics and Vital Records Section, as well as law enforcement, National Park Service, and medical examiner reports, to identify the circumstances surrounding fatal bear attacks.
During the study period, 68 people were hospitalized as a result of 66 bear attacks in Alaska. This means there were an average of just under four hospitalizations from bear attacks each year and indicates that bear attacks account for roughly 8.6 hospitalizations out of every 10,000.
According to the report, the frequency of bear attacks on humans “appears to be increasing globally.” This is due to a number of factors, including “increased habitat overlap” as a result of human population growth and increased engagement in outdoor recreation. The report points out that this is particularly true of Alaskans.
ALASKANS AND BEARS
From 2000–2017, Alaska’s population increased 17%, and Alaska’s population of brown bears remained healthy and productive, reaching densities as high as one bear per square mile in some parts of the state. On top of this, an increasing number of Alaskans and visitors from out of state are taking advantage of opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Alaska’s culture and employment opportunities also increase the risk of a bear encounter for the state’s residents. Alaskans are estimated to be about 1.5 times more likely than the average U.S. resident to engage in outdoor recreational activities, according to a study from the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.
According to investigative supplements for most of the incidents in the epidemiology report, an estimated 96% of attacks involved brown bears, with just 4% involving black bears. While bear attacks occurred in every region of Alaska and during all but two months of the year, bear attacks were most frequent in the Gulf Coast region and during summer months.
The report found that 70% of bear attacks occurred between June and October and that hospitalizations were most common among men, white people and people ages 50 to 59 years old. Seventy-nine percent of those hospitalized were Alaska residents, and 87% were engaged in outdoor recreational activities, most commonly hunting.
According to Dick Shideler, a bear research biologist with the Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, this victim profile should be “sort of expected” given that Alaska’s demographics skew male, white and older. He noted this is particularly true of hunters.
“That’s a demographic in this state that most resident and nonresident hunters fit very well,” he said.
Although he noted it was somewhat conjecture, Shideler has a few of his own theories as to why that particular demographic is the most common bear attack victim.
“I think one thing that may be a factor, and I don’t have any data to support this: I think there’s a tendency from older folks not to trust bear spray. And I think there’s a tendency among young folk, especially the hikers, to carry bear spray,” he said.
WHY BEARS ATTACK
The report found certain circumstances under which bear attacks are more common. For example, the presence of one or more cubs was noted in roughly one-third of all incidents. Some attacks were found to be a result of surprise encounters, which the bear may have perceived to be a threat; others involved a bear guarding or attempting to access a food source.
During 2000–2017, there were 10 bear-related fatalities resulting from eight bear attacks. Half of the attacks occurred in June and all occurred during June through October. The report highlighted that most of the victims were white male Alaska residents. Four of the victims were working at the time of the attack, including two employed in the video production industry. Nonoccupational bear attacks involved victims who were hiking/walking in wooded areas or camping.
In half of the incidents, the victim was alone at the time of the attack. In the instances involving a second individual who was not seriously injured during the attack, the person either successfully used a bear deterrent or was able to run to a building or other structure for protection. At least five of the 10 fatal bear attack victims either didn’t have any bear deterrents or had one that was not readily accessible at the time.
HOW COMMON ARE BEAR ATTACKS?
The report, however, emphasizes that hospitalizations or fatalities from bear attacks remain “uncommon events.” The report highlights that bear attacks are far less common than many other outdoor causes of injury in Alaska. For example, during 2000–2017, people in Alaska were 27 times more likely to be hospitalized following a bicycle accident and 71 times more likely to be hospitalized following an ATV or snowmachine accident. Over that same period, there were 500 fatalities due to drowning, almost 250 fatalities due to exposure to the cold, and over 460 hospitalizations due to dog bites.
Shideler was quick to note that the report omits any bear encounters or attacks that didn’t result in hospitalization, of which he said there are many.
“There have been some cases with minor scratches, which technically was an attack,” he said. “Those are under-represented in this sample.”
That said, the researchers note that “extensive media coverage” of bear attacks creates the perception of a higher frequency of hospitalizations and fatalities as a result of bear attacks.
Shideler, again, noted that the media tends to ignore cases where individuals safely escaped bear encounters.
“I mean, it’s news, right? Which, by definition, means it’s out of the ordinary,” he said. “Those of us who have been working in the bear safety world now wish we had a statistic of people who have encountered a bear and walk away without an interaction.
Shideler, however, went on to note that there’s a fine line between reassuring people that bear attacks aren’t common, and simultaneously ensuring that they take the possibility of an attack seriously.
“The media response to it is one of the things that makes people sit up and take notice,” he continued. “In some ways, it’s good if the story includes some things you can do to prevent attacks. In that way, it becomes a tool for learning.”
ADVICE FOR THE PUBLIC AND EMPLOYERS
The aim of the report is laid out in its introduction, which states that the examination of bear attacks in Alaska could provide the public with “objective knowledge that can be used to help reduce the frequency of attacks and to put the risk of their occurrence into perspective.”
The analysis underscores the fact that many bear attacks in Alaska occur in occupational settings, accounting for approximately 20% of bear attack hospitalizations and 40% of bear attack deaths during the study period. The report notes that, in 2017, an estimated 1 in 10 jobs in Alaska were related to the outdoor recreation industry.
“As such, employers of workers at risk for bear encounters while on the job should ensure that they have effective policies and procedures in place to help prevent encounters, deter attacks, and respond rapidly to injuries sustained in the field,” the report states. “The most effective means of avoiding a bear attack is to prevent the encounter in the first place.”
The report also draws attention to the fact that note that a substantial number of incidents involved people who were not Alaska residents, which, according to the report, highlights “the need for educational outreach to both Alaska residents and visitors.”
If you’re recreating, taking actions like making noise, traveling with a little space between group members, and avoiding low visibility situations like thick brush can all help to alert bears to your presence and may reduce your chances of scaring one.
Those recreating or working in the backcountry should always aim to avoid areas where bear attractants, like fish or animal carcasses, are visible. Anyone camping should use bear-resistant containers to store food and garbage and keep those containers well away from tents overnight.
Hunters should be aware that freshly killed game can draw a bear to the area, and hikers with unleashed dogs should be aware of the potential for pets to attract the attention of bears and potentially draw them back to their owners.
“Avoiding bear encounters is not always possible. Therefore, everyone who is recreating or working in bear country should always carry a bear deterrent for defense and practice accessing and using the deterrent before relying on it for defense in a high-pressure situation,” the report states.
The report concludes that while they are substantially less common than other causes of outdoor injury, bear attacks occurred in Alaska every year during 2000–2017, so learning best practices for recreating and working safely in bear country is a must.
For more information, you can visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website at www.adfg.alaska.gov/.