My heart aches for the family whose son/grandson was killed by a bear Sunday night in American Fork Canyon (see here and here). Over the decades I have camped many times in serious bear country without any problem. But I have also been a stickler about taking appropriate precautions to reduce the chance of attracting bears.
This issue strikes particularly close to home, as my oldest son is currently spending 2½ months camping in a tent in major black bear and grizzly bear country.
Safe camping in bear country requires knowledge of the risks involved and knowledge of how to mitigate those risks. It also requires ability and commitment to implement mitigations. While we rely on the people who work in wilderness recreation and wildlife management to make our camping areas as safe as possible, it is ultimately up to campers themselves to know what they need to know and do what they need to do to stay safe.
In the case of Sunday night’s fatal bear attack, we now know that a bear attacked a camper sleeping in a tent at the same campground Sunday morning. The bear ripped through the side of the tent and swiped at the camper three times with some force; although, the camper was not seriously injured. The DWR then brought in a hunter with dogs. They tracked the bear for five hours before losing its trail.
Based on extensive knowledge of bear behavior, DWR personnel assumed that the bear was so far away from the campground where the attack occurred that the bear could not possibly return anytime soon. To be on the safe side, a DWR biologist remained at the campsite until 5:00 PM Sunday to warn potential campers. Unfortunately, the ill fated family arrived at the campsite sometime after the biologist left.
Why were no signs of the bear problem posted at that campsite? The DWR and Forest Service followed established procedures that have kept campers safe for years. It was assumed that the bear would not possibly return to the campsite — at least not very soon. The Forest Service, which has authority to post signs, seems to be claiming that the DWR misreported the Sunday morning bear attack as a “brush by,” which did not warrant posting signs.
I had to laugh at the news this morning as they reported that a USA Today reader poll had 90% of respondents saying that officials effectively acted negligently in the AF Canyon incident. Asking a bunch of minimally informed people to vote after reading a highly emotionally charged article is obviously the best way to determine how experts should have behaved, right? Somehow, this qualifies as news.
To truly understand this tragedy, we have to step back to the time prior to the first bear attack. More bear problems can occur early in the camping season when bear mothers send their two- or three-year-old cubs off to be on their own. These younger and less experienced bears can be less capable of foraging for themselves and more prone to causing human interaction problems. Reportedly, the light winter allowed more cubs to survive, but has resulted in dry conditions that has reduced food available for bears. Thus, we have more bears and less food for them; conditions that lend to increased bear problems.
From my knowledge of bear behavior, it seems obvious that someone ruined this bear. How? By providing some kind of food reward at that campsite. Almost all problems humans have with black bears stem from food reward issues. Once bears get easy food at a place, they are like Pavlov’s dogs. They return to that place in the hope of getting more food. Any bear that gets food left out by humans is pretty much permanently ruined. While your average bear will stay away from humans, ruined bears won’t fear humans. Thus, I would guess that past campers indirectly caused both attacks by leaving out or leaving behind food that the bear was able to obtain.
When you camp in bear country, it is important to store anything with scent, including food, clothes with food scent on them, soap, toothpaste, insect repellant, deodorant, dirty cooking grills, etc. in a bear proof container. Your truck’s camper shell and your cooler don’t count, because bears can rip right through those. Bears have very sensitive noses. They will rip open unopened pop cans that you think have no scent. Scented items can be stored inside a vehicle’s trunk or inside a heavy metal locker. Some campsites provide bear boxes or lockers for storing scented items and coolers. Then, even if a bear comes around, it won’t find anything to eat. Finding no food rewards makes it less likely that the bear will frequent that spot. Obeying these rules not only helps keep you safe; it helps keep future campers safe.
Why did the bear attack the camper on Sunday morning? Why did the bear attack the 11-year-old boy on Sunday night rather than attack other members of the family that were sleeping only a couple of feet away? There is insufficient information to draw a conclusion, but I would speculate that both of the campers that were attacked had some kind of scent on them that made the bear think food was available.
A number of years ago, a boy was pulled from his tent by a bear near Yellowstone because the bear was after the candy he had stashed in the bottom of his sleeping bag. In that instance, the boy received no injuries because the bear pulled the bag off of him and ran away with the bag. They later found the bag 50 yards away with the bottom torn out and the candy gone.
This SLTrib article is pretty good on explaining the issues surrounding camping in wild animal country. One quoted expert says, “We're fastidious about keeping our food from the bears, and we stay in groups of four or more, and if we're traveling through bear habitat, we're careful to make noise.”
This reminds me of how we used to hike through Yellowstone when I was a teenager. We always outfitted the group leader’s backpack with a jingling bell that we called a bear bell. One time a park ranger asked us if we knew how to tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat. We looked quizzically at each other. The ranger replied, “Grizzly bear scat has bear bells in it,” and then he laughed. He said that while black bears sometimes skirt around groups with bear bells, some grizzlies have been known to look at it more like a dinner bell because they know that backpacking groups carry food with them.
DWR personnel have a lot more experience with bears than I do. But it seems that they were remiss in this instance. Bears return to locations where they have obtained food. When DWR folks set out Sunday morning with a hunter an dogs, they intended to kill the bear, not just anesthetize and relocate it. They knew it was a ruined bear that had become a danger to humans. And even if they chased it some distance away, it should have been obvious that the bear would eventually return to the scene of the crime looking for more food. It seems that they improperly reported the nature of the first attack to the Forest Service. The Forest Service didn’t understand the seriousness of the first attack until after the fatal attack occurred.
I also have to question the current procedure for posting signs and closing campgrounds. The Forest Service official that has the authority to do this didn’t even know about either attack until he came to work on Monday morning. This gives the impression that the Forest Service is incapable of handling weekend problems, which just happens to be the time of the week when the national forest is most heavily used.
For all of the claims by officials that they would not handle anything differently now given a similar situation, it appears that they should conduct a serious review of information flows between the DWR and the Forest Service as well as the ability of the agencies to respond rapidly to problems that occur over weekends.