Improving Visitor Preparedness and Safety in the Bear Country of Yellowstone National Park
by Pat Stephens Williams, Ray Darville, & Sally Vering
On August 23, 2018, a grizzly mother attacked a 10-year-old boy who was hiking the Divide Trail southeast of Old Faithful. While he was badly injured, his parents prevented the attack from being much worse due to the quick actions and use of bear spray. The bear spray had been rented from a new innovation in the park called Bear Aware, L.L.C., where visitors may rent bear spray and also receive training in the use of bear spray and on bear activity in the park. While bear attacks are relatively rare in Yellowstone, all hikers in Yellowstone are at risk for a bear attack. All visitors, and especially hikers, are encouraged to be prepared for encounters with bears and to be prepared accordingly—meaning maintaining respectful distances and carrying bear spray to use as a deterrent when necessary. On average, bears injure one visitor per year in the park (Gunther and Wyman 2008, Gunther et al. 2015, YNP 2017). In fact, in 2011 and 2015, both considered aberrations, three individuals were killed in the park by bears. With increased visitation and increased bear population, the park, researchers, and Bear Aware are very interested in and studying the visitor behavior related to preparing for potential encounters with the charismatic megafauna of Yellowstone. This study not only gathers non-intrusive information about the visitors, but also looks at the feasibility of expanding the rental approach in the Greater Yellowstone Area as a way to help visitors and wildlife be protected from harm. This study is proposed to be a longitudinal study initiated in 2016. This article summarizes the data collected in 2017.
Bear Aware currently offers bear spray for rent in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) outside Canyon Visitor Education Center. Their services include daily or weekly rental. If a canister was returned unsprayed and undamaged, renters would get their deposit refunded. Visitors could also buy bear spray with no-return expected at competitive prices. Upon completion of their hike(s), renters could return their canisters to one of the following locations: Mammoth, Tower-Roosevelt, Grant Village, Old Faithful, and Madison.
During summer 2017, Bear Aware was stationed at the north end of the Canyon Visitor Education Center opening May 27th and closing in early October. Bear Aware staff answered questions about bears (and other topics), displayed a video on bear safety, and sold their products. During each visit, visitors were asked by Bear Aware staff to answer a few basic questions, including demographic questions, their experience with bear spray, and what they would do if bear spray were not available.
We obtained data from 2,507 groups from May 27 to October 7, 2017. The mean number of groups per day was 18.8 with a minimum of 1 group and a maximum of 58 on two separate days in early July. The number of groups varied by month with the smaller numbers in October (n = 41, 1.6% of cases) and the largest number in July (n = 812, 32.4% of total groups). Almost 80% of cases occurred in June, July, and August. Respondents came from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The top five states of residence for these respondents were: (1) California (n = 279, 14.3%), (2) Texas (n = 150, 7.7%), (3) New York (n = 102, 5.2%), (4) Illinois (n = 97, 5.0%), and Washington (n = 92, 4.7%). Respondents came from all four regions, more respondents came from the West (n = 558, 28.6%) than any other region. These results also tend to follow the general United States regional populations. A substantial number of respondents came from countries other than the United States. While 78.1% were from the United States, some 19.7% from other countries. Respondents were from 37 different countries, not including the United States. The top five countries in descending order were: Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and France.
Almost three-quarters (74.4%) said they were on their first trip to the park while just over a quarter said this was not their first trip to Yellowstone. They indicated they were expecting to be in the park on their current trip on average for 4.12 days, ranging from 1 day to 18 days. Only about 5% were there for one day only while another 19.9% were there for only two days. Almost two-thirds were expecting to be in the park for four or fewer days. United States respondents were planning to stay slightly longer (M = 4.16 days) compared to international respondents (M = 3.99 days).
We asked individuals to identify how they first learned about bear spray rentals in the park. A total of 2,645 responses were given. The top three sources were: saw kiosk (32.8% of responses), park ranger (16.3% of responses), and park website (6.2% of responses). The Bear Aware website ranked 7th (n = 88, 3.3% of responses); this outcome may be of concern to Bear Aware. However, what we do not know for sure is how many of these respondents accessed the Bear Aware website. In fact, we noted that over a third of respondents saw the kiosk as they were in the Canyon Village area and had no previous information about the Bear Aware services. Looking deeper into this, we found United States visitors were more likely than international visitors to use the following sources: saw kiosk, accessed the Bear Aware website, heard via word of mouth, looked at the park website, and accessed news/TV/radio media. International visitors were more likely to have these sources: park newspaper, Oh, Ranger advertisement, and park ranger. United States visitors were more likely to see the kiosk than international visitors while international visitors were more likely than United States visitors to read about Bear Aware in the YNP newspaper, which is distributed at all entrance gates and various other locations.
We asked respondents to indicate if they had carried bear spray on previous hiking trips. Only 6.9% said they had carried bear spray on one or more previous trips. This small percentage suggests these respondents were not accustomed to carrying spray and that their knowledge of bear spray was limited, at best.
Then in one of the most important questions, we also asked respondents to identify what they likely would have done regarding hiking in the park if bear spray rentals were not available. Four answers were provided in this closed-ended question: (1) purchase bear spray, (2) hiked without bear spray, (3) undecided, and (4) would not have hiked. Obviously, the more risky answer would have been “hiked without bear spray.” The top answer was purchased bear spray (43.8%), which for the individual user is the costlier option. A quarter (24.7%) would have hiked without bear spray while another fifth (n = 91, 19.1%) said they were undecided about what action they would have taken.
Furthermore, we examined the association between whether the respondent had carried bear spray on a previous hike and what action the individual would have taken if bear spray were not available. This significant, but weak, relationship indicated that those who had carried bear spray before were more likely to purchase the spray for the current trip. Those who had not carried bear spray before were more likely to hike without it, be undecided, or would not have hiked. Moreover, those from the United States were more likely than those from other countries to purchase bear spray or hike without it, while international visitors were more likely to be undecided or would not have hiked without it. There was not a significant relationship between action and region of the United States.
While bear encounters and attacks are relatively rare in the national parks such as Yellowstone, the potential for personal injury and property damage exists for visitors. Bear spray has been demonstrated to be effective in preventing bear attacks for the last two decades, yet many hikers do not carry bear spray, are not trained in how to use bear spray, or do not have bear spray readily available (e.g., in a backpack). Bear Aware is on the front-lines of working with park visitors, helping to prevent these problems and allowing visitors to have more confidence as they hike. Their work enhances and extends the work of park rangers, ranger naturalists, and others. Bear Aware not only exposes visitors to bear spray, but trains visitors in the proper use of bear spray to be more prepared for a bear encounter.
Yet, visitors are diverse as to geographical, cultural, and social backgrounds and may well be unfamiliar of bear behavior and the risks associated with hiking in Yellowstone. Moreover, they may have been ignorant of the importance of carrying bear spray on their hikes. We were encouraged that over 2,500 visitor groups to YNP sought out Bear Aware for information, products, and services and look forward to comparing these data to subsequent years to determine if there is increased awareness and use of bear spray and how to behave in bear country. As a result, there will hopefully be a reduction in negative human/bear interactions.
Gunther, K.A., and T. Wyman. 2008. Human habituated bears: the next challenge in bear management in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Science 16(2):35-41.
Gunther, K.A., K. Wilmot, S. Cain, T. Wyman, E. Reinertson, and A. Bramblett. 2015. Habituated grizzly bears: a natural response to increasing visitation in Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks. Yellowstone Science 23(2): 33-39.
Yellowstone National Park (YNP). 2017. Yellowstone resources and issues handbook. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.