When Predators Attack

Beware! Humans are not always positioned at the top of the food chain.

When Predators Attack

While black bear and cougar attacks on humans are rare, attacks by grizzly bears are not.

Apex predators are dangerous.

As serious predator hunters, we know that. Which is why, to us, it seems crazy that the general public is shocked when they hear stories about big bears, dogs and cats attacking humans for seemingly no reason whatsoever. But they do. Some recent examples:

In June 2023, a 7- to 10-year-old male black bear weighing 365 pounds, that necropsy results later showed was in excellent health with no signs of either disease or starvation, aggressively attacked and killed 66-year-old Arizonan Steve Jackson, who was sitting at a picnic table sipping coffee on his wooded property near Prescott. The bear dragged Jackson some 75 feet down an embankment, whose screaming alerted neighbors who tried to get the bear off him by honking horns and yelling. The attack stopped only when one neighbor killed the bear with his rifle. No one knows what prompted the attack.

A little more than a month later, on July 29, a cougar attacked an 8-year-old girl at Lake Angeles, near Port Angeles, Washington state, on the state’s Olympic Peninsula. “The cougar casually abandoned its attack after being yelled and screamed at by the child’s mother,” said Amos Almy, Olympic National Park public information officer, in a press release. He added that the child suffered minor injuries and was able to hike back to the trailhead with park personnel. The area is known to be cougar territory, though the local population is thought to be small.

A year earlier, in May 2022, 9-year-old Lily Kryzhanivskyy was mauled by a cougar near a camping area in Stevens County, Washington state, while playing hide-and-seek with two other children. She “jumped out to surprise her friends when the cougar suddenly attacked,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a press release following the incident. Lily was medevaced to a hospital via helicopter, then rushed into surgery for wounds on her face and upper body. Doctors intubated her and the 9-year-old was in a coma through the weekend, but ultimately recovered.

Grizzly Attacks on the Rise

Black bear and cougar attacks on humans are admittedly rare. Attacks by grizzly bears are not — and their number is increasing. 

According to the National Park Service, bear attacks inside Yellowstone National Park are rare. For instance, their data show that the chances of being injured by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone are about 1 in 2.7 million visits, and that since the park was established in 1872, only eight fatalities from grizzly attacks have been recorded to date. 

It’s a different story outside the park boundaries, where grizzly populations are booming and their range is expanding. Every September, when bowhunters hit the elk woods in the Yellowstone ecosystem area, there are multiple attacks by grizzlies. For example, on Sept. 1, 2023, two archery elk hunters were stalking elk through thick brush near Island Park, Idaho, when they ran into a large boar grizzly at close range. It took shots fired from sidearms carried by both men to kill the surprised bear as it charged them. Luckily, neither hunter was harmed, and authorities who investigated the shooting declared it an act of self defense.  

On September 8, a grizzly bear attacked a hunter who was tracking a deer in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. The hunter was hospitalized for treatment from his injuries. The Gallatin County Sheriff’s office reported that the hunter was attacked near Yellow Mule Trail, about 50 miles southwest of Bozeman. The hunter shot at the bear and likely wounded it before the attack.

On Sept. 30, 2023, a hunter shot and killed a large adult female grizzly bear in self defense after it charged him while he was hunting elk northwest of Henrys Lake, Idaho. The hunter was moving through heavy timber when the large grizzly came out of the brush a short distance away. After the hunter yelled to warn his hunting partner of the bear’s presence, the bear charged directly toward him. The hunter was able to draw his sidearm and fire several times, killing the bear at close range.

The list goes on and on. There’s no question that conflicts between grizzlies and humans have been occurring with greater frequency in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, plus portions of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. And it’s not just hunters who are being attacked. For example, on August 5, a grizzly attacked a surveyor doing research in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. The man didn’t have time to deploy his bear spray, but he did manage to avoid life threatening injuries by playing dead while covering his neck and head. And on July 23, 2023, the body of a woman was found on the Buttermilk Trail west of West Yellowstone, the victim of “an apparent bear encounter,” Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks stated in a Facebook post. 

Hunters, perhaps, face the greatest risk of attacks from grizzlies and other large predators.
Hunters, perhaps, face the greatest risk of attacks from grizzlies and other large predators.

The Big Bad Wolf

How about the big bad wolf? There have been just two recorded fatal attacks caused by wild, healthy wolves in recent history in North America — one in Saskatchewan in 2005, the other in Alaska in 2010. Prior to that, the last recorded fatal attack by wolves that weren’t either captive or rabid were in Canada in the 1920s. The last one in the continental United States was in northern Michigan back in 1893, when a wolf pack attacked a pair of railroad workers out on a hunting trip 

According to the newspaper report, the pair were attacked “by a band of wolves,” and although they discharged their rifles into the pack, the wolves overpowered them. The survivor was able to climb a tree, where he watched in horror “where he saw his companion torn to pieces by the wolves at the foot of the tree in which he was perched.”

Nonfatal attacks by wolves are more common, though also rare. The last documented predatory attack in the Lower 48 occurred in Ely, Minnesota, in September 2019, when a wolf attacked a dog when the dog’s owner, Ted Schlosser of Ely, was out for a run with his four dogs. The wolf grabbed one of Schlosser’s dogs before he chased after it. The wolf subsequently dropped the dog. Most attacks in the wild occur in rural Canada, Alaska or the extreme northern reaches of the Lower 48. Interestingly, captive wolves are more likely to attack humans than wild ones. 

Globally, predators kill many more humans than in North America. An article by Brian Handwerk in Smithsonian magazine in January 2023, showed that around the world, people  — especially those in low-income countries — are attacked by predators relatively often. For example, in India, the government reported that an average of 34 people were killed annually by tigers in that nation between 2015 and 2018, while the United States has seen only nine fatal cougar attacks since 1980. The research, published in PLOS Biology, delved into records of reported carnivore attacks around the world from 1950-2019, mining sources such as scientific papers and news reports. In total, scientists documented 5,440 attacks from 12 different species of big cats, canids (wolves and coyotes) and bears. Of those attacks, about one in three proved fatal, while the others resulted in human injuries. 

The study suggests that the number of large carnivore attacks has increased over time, particularly in lower-income countries where humans and predators live in closer proximity, and encounters often occur while residents are engaged in daily livelihood activities such as farming or herding. This apparent increase, however, might also be a factor of increased incident reporting in the Internet era compared with the study sample’s earlier years. It’s a fascinating read.

The bottom line is, simply, that apex predators are dangerous. In places where they are not hunted by humans, as is the case with grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, they have no fear of man, and are exceedingly aggressive and very, very dangerous. Hunting guide Mark Uptain, aged 37, was killed by a sow grizzly and her cub as he was field dressing an elk shot by a bowhunting client in September 2018. Those bears were subsequently killed by government officials.

Grizzly bears are a daily concern for residents in the northern Rockies, where they now live not just in the high country, but also frequently wander into lowland valleys, break into homes, crash chicken coops, chase livestock and raid crops. The current population in Montana and Wyoming is thought to be more than 1,100 grizzlies, with a smaller but growing population in Idaho — a number well over the initial target population of 500 bears when Ursus arctos was first reintroduced to the region. Most sane people believe the population is easily large enough to have it delisted from its protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), when the states could then set regulated hunting seasons and manage the big bears. In fact, GYE grizzlies were delisted, then relisted, twice, in 2007 and again in 2017, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the original recovery goal had long been reached. Idaho and Wyoming planned modest hunting seasons soon after, with hunters to be limited to 22 bears in Wyoming and just one in Idaho. The hunts were canceled after a huge public outcry led by animal rights groups.

Another Bad Idea

Against the wishes of the majority of the local population, in November 2023, the Biden administration announced plans to bring grizzly bears back to Washington state’s North Cascades as an “experimental” population, which would open the door to allowing federal agencies increased flexibility in relocating, capturing and dealing with bears if (meaning “when”) they strayed off federal land or caused problems as a way to mitigate safety concerns and respond to public feedback that the agencies received when such a reintroduction was bandied about in the past. Translation: The feds want it done, and they’ll figure out a way to get it done. 

The result will be the same as it has been in the GYE — grizzlies kill many of the deer and elk that the local cougar and wolf populations don’t already take, reducing the chances for sport hunters to be successful even further in a region where hunting success is already low. And since this population will initially be small and will grow slowly, it will be fully protected by the ESA for decades, resulting in bears with zero fear of humans. It will be only a matter of time before someone is badly injured, or killed, by one of these bears.

As predator hunters, we instinctively know this. When recreating and hunting, it’s important to stay vigilant, and never take safety for granted. A quick Internet search will turn up a pile of apex predator attacks on humans. It’s a list none of us wants to be on. 


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