Are Grizzly Bears Dangerous?
Guided groups safely observe grizzly bears up close every year in Katmai National Park, Alaska
(Photo from K Bay Bear Viewing website)
Many people when they learn of our close work with grizzlies think that either we're insanely brave or just insane. The answer is neither and the truth is that thousands of tourists observe grizzly bears up close every summer in Alaska. All kinds of inexperienced people, from small children to senior citizens, safely get close to grizzly bears in Katmai National Park. In Brooks Camp alone there are 300-400 people that fly in every day for the chance to observe wild grizzlies up close. Visitors go through a mandatory 20 minute training presentation on bear safety, and then they are free to walk around on their own. Park rangers direct human traffic and guide visitors near the viewing platforms, but no visitor is formally "guided" while walking anywhere in the area. The park has been doing this for decades and there has never been an accident, thanks to the bears.
Most grizzly bears around the world live in very compromised ecosystems while constantly coming under attack from humans for getting to close. Katmai bears however live in a pristine uncompromised ecosystem with no negative impact from humans. Katmai bears represent what would be possible with other bears around the world if they were left alone in a uncompromised ecosystem. Any animal, human or otherwise, becomes more agressive in stressful situations and nothing is more stressful than starving and being shot at.
Here a female grizzly bear fishes only feet away from a group of photographers
Most people that have spent any time around grizzlies have done so in places such as Yellowstone or the Canadian Rockies. Those grizzlies would never get so close. So what's the difference? There are many reasons and factors to consider. One primary difference is that many of the Katmai bears have never been hunted so they have not learned to fear man. In the natural world, grizzlies are at the top of the food chain and thus most have no natural fear of man or any other animals. I say most because you can never use blanket statements when describing complex intelligent animals like bears. Some bears are simply fearful of humans even if they've never had any negative experiences with people. Each and every bear is an individual and some individuals are more cautious of new things than others. Of course, in areas of Katmai that see lots of tourists (Brooks, McNeil, Hallo) the bears have become quite used to people and therefore will get much closer than bears in more remote parts of Katmai National Park.
Living in a compromised ecosystem makes survival especially difficult, increasing the personal space requirement of a bear and the potential for aggression. Typically the more food that is available the more sociable the bear and thus coastal grizzlies tend to be more sociable than inland grizzlies. Grizzlies that aren't hunted and that have plenty of natural food sources can be some of the safest animals in the world to be around. Most grizzly bears are so confident in their power and their position at the top that they pay weaker species, such as humans, almost no attention whatsoever. In general, grizzlies don't see humans as food or as competition so most are largely indifferent to our presence (be sure and read Do grizzly bears eat people? which explains why bears don't see humans as food).
This photo shows a group only feet away from two cubs while their mother fishes nearby
(read more about this mother in the Athena story)
Genetically the inland grizzly bear and the coastal grizzly bear are the exact same species. However, there are many differences in their diet and this has a profound effect on their behavior. Food, especially meat, is scarce for inland grizzlies and nearly 95% of their diet is of the plant form. Coastal grizzlies on the other hand have access to highly nutritious salmon, clams, and sedge grass. This difference in diet has several effects. Coastal grizzlies tend to be much larger than inland grizzlies. Secondly, inland grizzlies tend to have larger "personal spaces" than do coastal grizzlies because food is more scarce and therefore they require a larger area to roam for food sources. Third, all of the highly nutritious foods on the coast (salmon, clams, sedge, etc) require the bears to congregate and feed together. Unlike coastal bears, inland grizzlies almost never congregate in large numbers. By feeding in close proximity to large numbers of other bears on a regular basis, coastal grizzlies have developed more social skills.
Bears, grizzlies in particular, have been so demonized by our culture it's really difficult to tell what is myth and what is truth. Grizzly bears can be some of the safest animals in the world for humans to be around but unfortunately that doesn't go both ways. Humans have never given grizzlies a chance and long ago we declared them vermin to be exterminated from the planet. These pioneer perceptions of grizzly bears were passed on to new generations through exaggerated stories and lore (be sure and read Do grizzly bears eat people? which discusses false perceptions of animals) so that now everyone in the general public is under the false perception that grizzlies are mankillers.
Let me be clear that we are not advocating that people can just safely walk up to a bear or camp around them without proper training and equipment. That would be unsafe and violates park rules. The park service has strict rules about being no closer than 50 yards from single bears and 100 yards from females with cubs. This is a very good rule and the most important thing about bear viewing is not disturbing the bears in any way. That's why we never approach bears closer than the park service rules. Not disturbing the bears and being safe are our primary priorities when camping in Katmai. Although bears are in general very safe they of course do have the potential, however remote, for aggression. That's why we take every safety precaution possible (electric fence, handheld flares, bear-proof food containers, communication devices).
Peaceful coexistence between humans and grizzlies is indeed possible, if only we give them a chance. People claim all the time that grizzly bears are unpredictable and that is simply not the truth. They are very predictable if you take the time to understand them. In many areas in Alaska (including the Katmai Preserve) humans are friendly towards bears during the summer bear viewing season and then hunt them in the fall during hunting season. I think its pretty obvious who is unpredictable. Humans and bears can peacefully coexist if we can only get past the false stereotype that bears are scary, relentless, unpredictable, mankillers and instead see the true grizzly bear. That is the goal of this website. For more on peaceful coexistence with grizzlies be sure and read Charlie Russell's book Grizzly Heart which is about his groundbreaking work with grizzlies in remote Kamchatka, Russia.