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Contact: Kyle Joly
Bear attacks are very rare in general, and predatory black bear attacks represent a very small minority of those attacks. Over a course of 100+ years (1900-2009), just 59 predatory attacks by black bears occurred in the entirety of Alaska and Canada combined. Greater than 90% of these incidents were perpetrated on groups of 1-2 people and greater than 90% of those incidents involved male black bears.
The best advice remains constant: travel in groups of three or more, make plenty of noise, and keep a clean camp. Always have a deterrent and understand that no deterrent is 100% effective. In general, bear spray is more effective than other means because of its ease of use and a wide blast area. If proficient and comfortable with firearms, this is a good deterrent as well. Carrying both spray and firearms by competent individuals provides the most options. Even without good functioning of their eyes (due to spraying), predatory bears can use sound and smell to engage their prey.
While most attacks are defensive, and thus pepper spray is an excellent deterrent, predatory attacks have a different motivation: the need to eat. Animals, including humans, can overcome pepper spray if properly motivated and other conditions are met - this is a proven, known fact.
This year's high visibility attacks may be random or it may be caused by something, such as poor forage quality. This latter example is a hypothetical explanation that, though shown to be correlated with more problem bears elsewhere, has not been studied here.
Before heading into the outdoors, view Denali National Park & Preserve’s Wildlife Safety information. Stephen Herrero's book "Bear Attacks: their causes and avoidance" is one of the best resources for anyone further interested in the subject.
Below are three important research papers that provide excellent information about bears, bear safety, and bear attacks.
(All links are external, non-National Park Service)
Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska
Efficacy of firearms for bear deterrence in Alaska
Fatal attacks by American black bear on people: 1900–2009