When bears attack: Avoiding a confrontation

Last week’s news about a seemingly random attack on a camper by a grizzly bear in a campground near the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park should serve as your regular reminder about the need for preparedness at all times when visiting the region — even in the case of what appeared to have been a random attack.

Steven Bartley, 59, of Springfield, Ore., was attacked on July 17 while camping at the Soda Butte campground outside of Cooke City, Mont. This isn’t exactly a remote campground, nor is it deserted; there’s plenty of car traffic near it on Hwy. 212 all day and many hours of the night. Bartley was sleeping in a three-person tent when the grizzly jumped it in the early morning. He suffered defensive puncture wounds on both hands, deep lacerations, and a broken bone under his thumb. Bartley underwent surgery for the hand injury at West Park Hospital in Cody before being released.

“As I reached up to unzip the fly to get out, the bear took a bite of my right hand. And I began swinging and hitting it as hard as I could and screaming in panic,” Bartley said in an interview on CBS’s Early Show. “At that point, the tent was collapsed around me. I kind of felt like I was enclosed in a sleeping bag. It then took my (left) hand and also took it in its jaws. So I began hitting it again with my right hand as hard as I could and screaming and yelling to get out. It went back to my right hand another time. That’s when I could actually hear bones crunching.

“I’m just continuing to scream and yell and hit it as hard as I can, not actually even being able to see the bear. For some reason it quit. And I was rescued out of the tent by other campers.”

Why the bear decided to attack Bartley is the big mystery. There were other campers in the campground; as we noted, it’s not exactly a remote outpost of any sort. Though Bartley did have food in a bearproof container, officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks don’t consider it to be a factor: in fact, department spokesperson Melissa Frost called his campsite “spotless.

“He didn’t have any food in his campsite outside of a bear-proof container,” she said. “He didn’t cook at his campsite. The campground overall was very clean.”

Bartley is expected to make a full recovery, though he may lose some functionality in his hand.

The larger issue is avoiding a seemingly random attack like this. State officials think this is a grizzly accustomed to being around people. And Bartley did everything right in terms of preparation. So there’s probably little he could have done to avoid the confrontation.

But most grizzly/human interactions are avoidable. The larger lesson — and one that bears almost endless repetition — is to always be aware of the wildlife in the Yellowstone region. During a late June visit to the Park we had two rather blunt reminders of that danger. The first was a closure of Firehole Lake Drive due, as we found out later, to an elk serving as a meal to some critter right next to the entrance; when we returned we saw the remains next to the road. The second reminder came during a routine walk from Old Faithful Inn to Morning Glory Pool. Between the pool and the restrooms were the remains of a bison — a younger one, we’d guess, judging by the hooves and fur left behind — which looked to have been killed in the midst of a popular walking path. It’s safe to say the bison was killed after the start of the 2009 season in mid-May, at a time when plenty of folks were in the Park. (The video below shows where it was.)

Now, the point of this isn’t to scare you away from Yellowstone National Park, Cooke City or the surrounding area. But the point is to be prepared — especially for grizzlies. If you’re using a Park picnic area, follow the instructions found on each picnic table. If you’re hiking in the backcountry, follow the ranger recommendations found here (most importantly, make a lot of noise as you hike and keep food far away from your tent). While you can’t prevent a seemingly random attack, you can do plenty more to avoid any other kind of grizzly attack.

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