The Problem of Hunters

Hunting on foot for big game such as moose or elk  in areas occupied by grizzly bears is remarkably hazardous for the involved people and disproportionately disturbing for the involved bears. A new report, shown at right, summarizes the hazards for people and impacts on bears resulting from hunting in grizzly bear country.


There are no data from which risks to hunters can be explicitly calculated (for example, odds of being charged or injured as a function of exposure), but all of the available evidence points to elevated hazards relative to most other activities by people on foot.


Some evidence comes from simple tallies of humans killed by grizzly bears. For example, of the 72 people who were killed in North America since the mid-1950s, 21% were hunting big game—a number that almost certainly far exceeds the proportion of hunters relative to other pedestrians active in areas occupied by grizzly bears. Of the seven fatalities where relevant information is readily available, six involved the presence of an animal recently killed by a hunter—in other words, an attractant. Looking at all recorded human fatalities going back to the early 1800s, an additional eight were attributable to people who were actively hunting grizzly bears, including five who were hunting over some sort of bait. When these fatalities are included, roughly 29% of the total involved hunters.

Pedestrians and bears cover back-1.jpg

Credit Tom Mangelson

A handful of studies provide information regarding circumstances under which pedestrians have been injured that is also relevant to judging the hazards of hunting. Again, hunters account for what is almost certainly a disproportionately large number of the injured—25% of the total in British Columbia; 59% of the total in Alberta; and 75% of the total in Scandinavia. Of the last, 79% had shot at or wounded a grizzly bear, consistent with the raw number of fatalities involving bear hunters in the contiguous United States prior to widespread extirpations of grizzly bears. Of additional relevance, 20% of all incidents where people were injured by grizzly bears in British Columbia involved bears either defending or attempting to appropriate an animal carcass—again, often involving hunters.


The disproportionate numbers of hunters among those injured or killed by grizzly bears is not surprising. By first principles, hunters behave in ways that magnify rather than diminish risks. They are often moving stealthily, which increases odds that bears will be surprised during an encounter. They are also typically active in areas where bears plausibly associate people with the availability of food in the form of hunter-killed carcasses. Moreover, hunters are often closely associated either in the field or in camp with the remains of animals they have killed. Under such circumstances, bears are likely actively searching for hunter-associated kills in hunter-frequented areas with the intent of appropriating available edibles. Involvement of attractants under such circumstances unambiguously increases the odds that grizzly bears will aggressively contest food and space.


Given these data, it is remarkable that there have been no explicit studies of factors configuring risks for hunters. The closest approximation is in several white papers produced by managers in the Yellowstone Ecosystem who were tasked with developing recommendations for reducing levels of conflict between bears and people, including hunters. The results either directly identified—or tacitly implicated—risk factors for hunters, including hunting alone; archery hunting, especially when done with an audio aid designed to attract bulls; contesting carcasses claimed by bears; leaving carcasses out overnight; and otherwise “improperly handling” carcasses. All of these factors relate to either increased odds that bears would be startled or encountered under circumstances where food was contested. Either way, aggression by bears would be likely.


For more on how hunters and other people on foot impact grizzly bears, download the report by clicking on this link, or click on the image above.