Death from encountering a bear is rare, but they will attack whatever they see as a threat to their cubs, or if you startle them.
Although both black bears and grizzlies have a fearsome reputation for scratching or mauling people to death, and our understanding of Yellowstone’s bears has improved since the days of Yogi and Booboo, grizzly bear attacks rarely occur, and deaths are even chancer. However, these incidents do happen as more grizzly bears are reintroducing themselves into the Yellowstone wilderness.
From 1980-2011, over 90 million people visited Yellowstone National Park. During the same 32 year period, 43 people were injured by bears in the park. Doing the math, the chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million. You’re just as likely to be zapped by lightening or drown in a boiling-hot thermal pool.
When hiking, you can reduce the odds of being injured by a bear by:
- hiking in groups of 3 or more people
- staying alert
- making noise in areas with poor visibility
- carrying bear spray
- not running during encounters with bears
Separate incidents in July and August of 2011 reported two day hikers mauled to death by grizzlies near Hayden Valley. (One was hiking with a group, while the other was solo.) Even more recently, two more people in 2013 survived attacks by grizzlies in the park. And, in August of 2015, a knowledgeable hiker was killed in the backcountry. In the later, there were reports of a grizzly with a cub in the area.
But don’t let that scare you. In the entire 142-year history of Yellowstone National Park, there have only been a reported eight deaths (including the one in 2015), most likely caused by grizzly bears.
Of course, when you’re backcountry camping or hiking, the odds of encountering grizzlies or black bears increase, if only by a little. Bear attacks become less and less likely when you sleep at least 100 yards away from a locking, bear-proof food container (although some wily Yellowstone bears have reportedly figured these out). Black bears are easily skittish and, if you stand tall and shout, “Hey bear!” they’re sure to scamper off.
Should you encounter a grizzly on a hike—the more people in your group, the less likely he or she will attack—be sure to have bear spray ready, and in the event of an attack, drop to the ground and play dead.
J. Scott Donahue is a freelance writer and essayist with a passion for alpine climbing, trail running and other hard things. He writes for YellowstonePark.com and Sierra Club, and recently graduated with an MFA in Nonfiction Writing.