The Biggest Bruins
May 09, 2016
Perhaps the most infamous bear attack in recent years was the killing of Timothy Treadwell and his unfortunate companion, Amie Huguenard. Treadwell had spent much time studying bears and believed he understood them, which is probably true to a point. He also believed he could communicate with them, which may also be partially true.
Unfortunately, it appears that he also believed he could reason with them.
The couple had been living in the wilderness of Alaska's Katmai National Park for several months in proximity to bears with apparently little incident. Without question Treadwell knew his bears. Oddly, it was the evening before their scheduled pickup, 5 October 2003, when Treadwell had his last meaningful conversation with his bears.
When the pilot came in to pick them up, he found the grisly remains of both Treadwell and Huguenard...and, in the cabin they'd shared, a tape recording documenting their last horrific moments. Exactly what happened or why isn't precisely known. However, Treadwell's dying screams are loud and clear, and it appears that Huguenard tried to drive the bear away and was also killed. Both were unarmed.
On a previous expedition Treadwell had effectively used pepper spray to deter an aggressive bear, but he wrote that he felt so bad about it he wouldn't use it again. Without question he loved his bears, but it is entirely possible he didn't respect them quite enough! (Perhaps the feeling was mutual.)
Unlike the cat family, genus Felis, the bears, genus Ursus, are not strictly carnivorous. They are technically omnivorous, eating both plant and animal matter. This is situational and based on habitat. Polar bears, for instance, subsist primarily on a meat diet, with only a few populations (such as Churchill in Hudson's Bay) even encountering plants.
However, in general a more varied diet probably gives bears much greater longevity. In the wild, bears have been documented as living well into their thirties, more than twice the life span of cats in the wild. This allows bears much greater life experience, and without question they are intelligent animals. However, with all respect to Mr. Treadwell, bears are extremely unpredictable, and, thus, all bears can be dangerous.
It stands to reason that the bigger they are, the more dangerous! This is probably true, but in Malaysia the collie-size sun bear, smallest of the bears, is given a wide berth by locals. In North America there are many more incidents with black bears than with brown/grizzly bears. This suggests other factors such as black bears are much more numerous and widespread, so human-black bear encounters are much more frequent.
Food sources also make a big difference. Bears are opportunistic feeders, effective predators given the chances, but also perfectly happy to graze on new grass in the spring and feast on berries in the fall. Ah, but a hungry bear of any variety is dangerous! And a bear that perceives a threat, whether real or not, is even more dangerous. The bottom line is bears are unpredictable.
My old friend Ed Nixon lived his life in Montana's Swan Valley, grizzly country, and he said it better than I ever could: "One animal surpasses them all as (Nature's) final taskmaster — the grizzly. When you bump into one of these great bears, you will learn many things never to be forgotten, and yet, after a lifetime of it, you still won't understand, for no one really knows the grizzly."
All things being equal, it stands to reason that the bigger the bear, the greater the danger. Any bear has the equipment to bite and claw a puny human up one side and down the other, but an attack from the average 150-pound black bear is more survivable than an attack from a big black bear weighing three times as much — or from a grizzly weighing five times as much. What chance have we if we close with one of the really big bears?
From Spain eastward to Alberta (and at one time eastward into the Great Plains and south into northwestern Mexico), there is just one brown/grizzly bear, Ursus arctos. Its defining characteristics, other than an unpredictable and often aggressive personality, are long claws, a characteristic hump, and a dished face under a broad skull. Color varies dramatically from nearly blonde to almost black, including the varicolored, light-tipped hair we call grizzled ("grizzly") or silvertip.
Color phases tend to be regional, though are inconsistently so. Size also varies, but is probably largely determined primarily by diet and somewhat by length of hibernation. The largest of the breed are the fish-feeding bears of the northern Pacific Rim, from northwestern British Columbia along coastal Alaska and across the Bering Strait to Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
Very few wild brown bears have been weighed, and weights of captive specimens mean nothing because of artificial diets. I am, however, totally convinced that a really big coastal bear can weigh three-quarters of a ton. Bears I have seen taken are at least as heavy as any Cape buffalo I've ever seen, which is my point of comparison. These were outsize specimens, suggesting that a solid thousand pounds is probably not an unusual weight. Claws can be six-inch stilettos, teeth three-inch daggers, and the corded muscle of any bear is a marvel of Nature. What chance does any man have against such a creature?
There is another very big bear on this Earth, Ursus maritimus, the polar bear. It's an old argument as to which is larger, the coastal brown bear or its white northern cousin. I cannot answer the question. The largest known skull sizes are similar. The maximum size of the squared hides (nose to tail plus front paw to front paw, divided by two — no stretching) are similar, somewhere in excess of eleven feet. The polar bear is rangier and may be longer while the brown bear may be heavier, in part because of better diet. Take your pick. You don't want to go mano a mano with either!
Because of their remote habitat, most polar bears have almost no interaction with humans and never learn respect, let alone fear. The polar bear is probably the only terrestrial creature that, upon encountering a human, commonly considers him to be just another meal. With the limited polar bear hunting being done today, it is amazing how many hunts end with the bear wandering into camp, hoping to kill and eat either the sled dogs or the strange two-legged creatures accompanying them. The genuine and constant danger from polar bears has been known since the days of the early Arctic explorers.
There is generally a significant buffer zone between human habitation and polar bear country, and few humans venture unarmed into the realm of the white bear. This is wise, and while to this day many hunters have had close calls with polar bears, actual documented maulings (or eatings) are few. They have occurred, rarely, in the Arctic of both Canada and Alaska.
In December 1990 twenty-eight-year-old Carl Stalker was chased down, killed, and eaten while walking with his girlfriend on the streets of Point Lay, Alaska. Apparently the lady escaped unharmed, but it probably should be noted that, at that time of the year, conditions would have been twilight at very best and perhaps not a great time and place for a stroll.
In 1999 sixty-four-year-old Hattie Amitnak was awarded a posthumous medal for heroism after being killed while trying to distract a polar bear that attacked and mauled two other people, who survived thanks to her courage. This happened near Rankin Inlet in what is now Nunavut, on the Hudson Bay. Interestingly, that attack took place in July, a time of full daylight. Other tragedies have occurred with polar bears, but documented incidents are rare.
On the other hand, to this day Inuit hunters go forth and never return. Polar bears are often suspected, but the reality is that storms and shifting leads are as hazardous as any bear, and on the trackless ice, gone is gone. In modern-day polar bear hunting, the bear is surely dangerous, but aside from pressure ridges, the country is fairly open, so it's unusual to be totally surprised by a bear. Another extremely dangerous factor is the cold, even if the weather cooperates.
Just as it is impossible to say which is the larger — the polar bear or the coastal brown bear — it is equally impossible to say which is the more dangerous. To the polar bear any living creature on the ice is prey, and encounters with humans are so uncommon that few of their tribe ever learn respect. Brown bears are hunted harder, and especially in Alaska (not so much in Siberia) many bears in the course of their long lives encounter hikers, fishermen, hunters, and other wilderness wanderers. Some, through warning shots and pepper spray, learn a measure of respect. It is not impossible, however, that some bears work their way through this and learn contempt. (Ask Mr. Treadwell's bears.)
In November 1999 on Alaska's Uganik Island, Ned Rasmussen went missing after going deer hunting alone. Search parties found him dead, obviously mauled by a bear, but little else is known. This does not happen every year, but Rasmussen was neither the first nor the last deer hunter to turn up missing, presumably killed by a bear.
In this region, the Sitka blacktail is an important food source for both bears and men. Bear permits are limited but multiple deer tags are readily available. So there is a lot more deer hunting than bear hunting. The bears have learned that deer hunters are a good source of easy venison, and it stands to reason that sometimes deer hunters get in the way of a good meal.
This is somewhat compounded by hunting techniques. Relatively few people are foolish enough to specifically go brown bear hunting alone. This is not only for obvious safety reasons but also as a matter of practicality: One person alone is very hard pressed to skin a really big bear, and the hide and skull together makes a huge load. Alaskans pride themselves on being independent and self-sufficient, and they often do hunt deer alone, which may not be the wisest course.
Worse, a common blacktail technique is calling (as Eastern whitetail hunters often do), and one must assume that the bears know the meaning of a deer call just as well as other deer! It is known that Rasmussen liked to call deer, and apparently a deer call was found with his remains. Whether he was calling and was stalked by a bear, or simply bumped into a bear at too-close range is not known.
Then there's the issue of packing meat in bear country, essentially turning oneself into a mobile bait. Years earlier my old friend and mentor Bob Tatsch was on a fall Kodiak Island hunt with Master Guide Joe Hendricks. Bob shot a nice Sitka blacktail, a fine bonus to his Kodiak brown bear, but their young assistant guide was packing a load of meat and attacked and seriously mauled by a brown bear. When they found him one eye was hanging from its socket, and he was bitten and clawed severely. It seemed impossible that he could survive his injuries, but in fact he did. There are lessons from these incidents.
In much of Alaska's prime brown bear habitat, hunters more often go after caribou, moose, and deer than bears; consequently, bear hunting is much more limited. Experienced Alaskan hunters believe absolutely that many bears come to regard a shot as, rather than a frightening sound, a dinner bell. I saw this myself on a Kodiak deer hunt some years ago. Jake Jacobsen also has the coveted distinction of being an Alaskan master guide, but we were hunting as buddies, sometimes together and sometimes going our separate ways. Fortunately we were together when I shot a really great buck. We had barely started the field dressing when a beautiful (and really big) brown bear appeared on the ridge above us.
Alaskan law is very clear: You may kill a bear to save your own life, but not in defense of property (which includes legally taken meat). So a bit of a standoff ensued. Fortunately, this bear was a perfect gentleman. He approached to about a hundred yards and then sat on his haunches like a big dog, watching the proceedings and waiting for his turn. Also fortunately, there were two of us and it was a deer, not a moose! The buck carried Boone and Crockett-size antlers and I certainly didn't want to abandon it, but if that bear had started down the slope, we would have had to give ground, and we would just have to hope that the bear would have been satisfied with the deer. Taking turns cutting and watching the bear, we boned the meat in accordance with Alaskan law, divided the load into two packs, and got the hell out of there as quickly as we could.
This business of bears coming to a rifle shot seems relatively new, certainly within the last quarter-century. Wilderness hunters, however, have long been conscious of the danger (if not folly) of packing meat in bear country. The risk is obvious, and the mitigations equally obvious: Stay armed and ready, avoid close cover, and for God's sake don't pack meat at twilight when bears are most active! Enough incidents have occurred that Alaskan wanderers are a bit more careful today. Bear spray is commonly carried and is an extremely effective deterrent. Although I'm a "hunting guy" and a "gun guy," I believe in it fervently for two reasons: First, I have no desire to kill a bear without a proper license, and, with the proper license, I have no desire to kill a bear unless it's the bear I have chosen to kill. Second, bear spray works . . . and when things get nasty, a firearm may not be as immediately effective.
"One animal surpasses them all as (Nature's) final taskmaster — the grizzly. When you bump into one of these great bears, you will learn many things never to be forgotten, and yet, after a lifetime of it, you still won't understand, for no one really knows the grizzly." - Ed Nixon
A generation ago gunwriter John Wootters did some research. Many people want to carry a big handgun for defense against bears, but at the time Wootters did his digging (circa 1980s), there was a stark statistic: No one who had defended himself or herself against a bear attack with a handgun survived. Often the bear also died, but the human always died.
Understand that this is different from carefully shooting an unaware bear with a big pistol. Using a handgun to defend oneself against an enraged and already adrenaline-hyped bear is another story altogether.
Since then, I have become aware of a couple of incidents where handguns were effectively used. Larry Kelley (of Mag-Na-Port fame) killed a big bear as it clawed its way into a remote cabin after him. A few others have had similar luck. Even so, a handgun is probably not the best choice. A slug-loaded shotgun is better, and a large-caliber rifle better still, but current research suggests that bear spray works awfully well, not only saving your own ass, but also the bear's!
In this chapter we have separated out the coastal brown bears from the interior grizzlies, as hunters generally do. This is not from a standpoint of greater or lesser danger. If a big bear is on top of you, biting and clawing, I'm not at all sure if it matters whether it's a five-hundred-pound bear or a bear three times larger. You are toast. And you won't like it. That said, there are other coastal brown bears on the other side of the Bering Strait with altogether different characteristics.
To start with, these bears have had entirely different experiences with humans! I was one of the first hunters in when the Soviet government fell and hunting opened in Kamchatka in 1992, an area that has perhaps the most dense brown bear population in the world. The local guides were experienced bear hunters, but not exactly by our standards. They had some AK-47s, thanks to the hasty retreat of the Soviet garrison, but their traditional arm was the slightly more powerful Mosin-Nagant 7.62x54mm, much the same as the old .30-40 Krag but with a lighter bullet. Geez! Or, failing that, a shotgun with a homemade slug! These were tough guys and serious hunters, and they had no fear of bears...but the bears had little fear of them. When I arrived in Petropavlovsk, a bear had just seized and eaten a cab driver. (Is that the ultimate of a "bad fare?")
The tales of bear carnage from Siberia are so amazing as to be incredulous. However, it must be understood that these bears are hunted very little. It is probably the densest brown/grizzly population in the world, and it is also extremely harsh country where bears have to work hard to make a living. This is the only place I have ever heard of where bears congregate in packs — like wolves — to take livestock and occasionally human prey.
Concerted attacks on livestock have been well documented, and in 2008 a pack of possibly thirty bears surrounded a mining compound in the Olyotorsky area of Kamchatka. These bears killed and devoured two workers, and for some unknown reason the remainder had a problem going to work until government hunters came in and solved the problem. Similar incidents have been recorded in mainland Siberia, although the preferred prey has generally been livestock. The "pack mentality" phenomenon has not been specifically observed or reported in North America, but over here there is a generally greater availability of natural prey, and, perhaps, also a greater respect for humans.
This last is not universal in the bear world, and should not be taken for granted (as, perhaps, the late, lamented, and thoroughly munched Mr. Treadwell did). In July 2000 George Tullos' partially consumed body was found at a public campground near Hyder, in southeast Alaska. There is no evidence he did anything to provoke the attack, except to be at the wrong place at the wrong time — and in the path of a hungry bear.
With most of Africa's dangerous game, it isn't hard to find examples of animals that turned the tables on humans. Oddly, with our largest bears it is very difficult to find examples of hunters who were injured while specifically hunting bears. I have no idea why this is so. Different country? Maybe. In dense alders it isn't hard to be surprised, but much of big bear country is fairly open. More competent guides? I doubt it. A less aggressive animal? I doubt that even more!
Perhaps it's a simple answer: The bear presents a larger target, and although the top speed of a bear is amazing, the bear is slower to accelerate than the cats. Our largest bears are not to be taken lightly, however, because they are completely unpredictable and just one bite can do an incredible amount of damage.
Autographed copies of Deadly Encounter and additional Craig Boddington books are available from craigboddington.com.