A “game changer” in grizzly territory?

July 30, 2011

You may have heard about the recent grizzly attack involving a group of NOLS students in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains. A good rendition of the story is in this article from the Alaska Dispatch:

The story hit home, as this is a part of Alaska in which I have led scores of students during WEA courses over the past decade. The story is of particular interest to those of us who take groups into grizzly country, as it appears to be the first example of an exception to a rule we all hold as gospel: grizzlies do not attack large groups. Is this a “game changer” for outdoor educators?

Although the mantra appears in various forms, it is best stated by David Smith in his estimable book Backcountry Bear Basics. Smith reports that there has never been an injury to a group of six or more, nor a fatality in a group of four or more. He believes that this is because such a group is more likely to be noisy, to be seen early by the bear, and to give the bear pause before initiating a charge.

As best I can tell, this statement has never been challenged by anyone knowledgeable. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game apparently believes it. I discussed this the other day with Bill Porter, a friend who is a senior wildlife biologist at Michigan State University, who also concurs.

So, what happened? Obviously, we will probably never know for sure, but from the report in the paper I have a theory. Although the group size was sufficient to be protective, I have to wonder about how close together they were. Apparently, they were walking in a creek–a particularly dangerous place in the Talkeetnas in late July–when they came upon the sow and her cub. I suspect that the group was spread out somewhat, and that the mother thought she was being challenged by a single individual. She attacked, and it was only after that that the rest of the group wandered into the location.

Fortunately, the student had the knowledge and wits to do exactly the right thing: play dead. This worked, as the bear then left him for another student. Obviously, the vaunted NOLS bear procedure training saved the boy’s life.

So, what is the lesson here for the outdoor leader in grizzly territory? I believe that we can continue to say with integrity that there is safety in numbers. What we must reinforce to our students, however, is that only applies if the group is tightly together–close enough to be seen as one. This is easier said than done–groups tend to spread out, and many resent being told to keep together. This incident, however, reminds us that this must always be the practice in bear country.