Deadly attacks in the West: How to stay safe from grizzlies, black bears, mountain lions

A 3-year-old black bear looks out from a tree after being chased up by a dog in a forest above Strawberry Reservoir
in July 1998. A string of deadly encounters between humans and bears this summer has again put the West in national headlines.

A 3-year-old black bear looks out from a tree after being chased up by a dog in a forest above Strawberry Reservoir in July 1998. A string of deadly encounters between humans and bears this summer has again put the West in national headlines. (Chuck Wing, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — Bear attacks are rare. But when they do happen, they're often horrific.

A string of deadly encounters between humans and bears this summer have again put the West in national headlines.

Warning that bear conflicts often increase in times of drought, wildlife experts want Utah residents and those recreating in the West's mountain ranges to arm themselves with knowledge: How to prevent dangerous encounters with predators in the first place and what to do if worst comes to worst.

Recent western bear attacks

  • A bear killed a woman who was camping in western Montana on Tuesday. While Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the attack involved a grizzly bear, a type of bear that is common in the area, the area's local sheriff said that was not yet confirmed, according to KVGO News. Officials were still hunting for the bear as of Wednesday.
  • While apparently walking her two dogs, a Colorado woman was killed in May in a rare black bear attack, marking just the fourth fatal mauling in the state of Colorado since record-keeping began in 1960. The woman's boyfriend found her body near the town of Durango. Using tracking dogs, officials found a 10-year-old sow and two yearlings nearby and killed the bears "out of an abundance of caution."
  • Also in May, a bear attacked and injured a 39-year-old man in Yellowstone National Park, where he was hiking alone on a trail near Mammoth Hot Springs when he encountered two grizzly bears. One of the bears attacked and left the man with significant injuries to his legs, but he was able to hike to safety on his own.
  • In April, 40-year-old backcountry guide Charles Mock died from injuries after he was mauled by a grizzly bear near a campground outside West Yellowstone. An older male grizzly bear was shot and killed when it charged a group investigating the attack. Mock's family, who live in Utah, recently mourned the loss of their brother and son in an interview with KSL-TV, describing him as an experienced outdoorsman who had deep respect for wildlife.

Fatal bear attacks are rare. Since Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, eight people have been killed in the area, which stretches across parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, according to the National Park Service.

Utah encounters

The more aggressive grizzly bear doesn't roam Utah mountains — but black bears do.

Utah has seen only eight bear encounters since 2005, according to Darren DeBloois, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources game mammals coordinator.

Though rare, they have attacked Utahns — and in one case killed a child.

The most horrific of Utah cases continues to be the tragic killing of 11-year-old Samuel Ives, who died in June 2007 after a black bear ripped him from a tent he was sharing with his family in American Fork Canyon. Officials searched for two hours before finding the boy's body nearly 400 yards from the campsite. The black bear was shot and killed the next day after 26 dogs and five houndsmen tracked it down.

  • The mauling led the Ives family to sue the U.S. Forest Service because the bear had terrorized the same campsite earlier that day, but after unsuccessfully searching for the bear, officials didn't warn the Ives family of the bear's presence. The Utah Supreme Court later ruled in favor of the boy's family.
  • The most recent Utah bear encounter was in August 2019, when a young black bear bit a 13-year-old boy while he was camping at the Dewey Bridge Campground near Moab. The boy was sleeping outside in a sleeping bag when the bear bit his head. The bear was scared off when the boy woke up, but he was left with injuries on his cheek and ear.
  • Another bear that summer left a boy with injuries. In June 2019, a black bear scratched a Boy Scout when the bear entered a campsite on private property near Hobble Creek Canyon and stepped on the tent. The bear ran away when the boy made noise but left him with scratches on his back.
  • In 2009, a black bear attacked a 78-year-old man while he was sleeping on a cot in eastern Utah, near Rock Creek Ranch in Carbon County's Desolation Canyon. One of the man's daughters woke up, jumped on the bear and punched it, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. After another family member joined in the struggle, the bear let go of the man — and was shot in the back by one of the victim's grandsons. The animal ran off and was later found dead.

Bears aren't the West's only dangerous predators

In one of the most recent, high-profile cases, a Utah man survived a harrowing, six-minute encounter with a mother mountain lion last October — all caught on video.

Kyle Burgess, 26, described to the Deseret News how he stumbled across four mountain lion cubs while was on a run up Slate Canyon near Provo. Soon after their mother rounded the corner. She charged Burgess, and for the next six minutes aggressively followed him as he walked backward up the trail. At times the mountain lion lunged at him, hissing. With each pounce, her powerful hind legs kicked up dust and gravel.

Burgess eventually got away without a scratch — after he was finally able to pick up a rock and hurl it at the mountain lion. She took off running.

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How to stay safe

Earlier this spring, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources warned Utahns to be especially careful of predators amid the West's "megadrought," saying the likelihood of conflicts with bears increases during drought years. Not only do they come out of hibernation earlier than usual due to early warm weather, bears' normal food supply is more scarce, leading them to seek other food sources.

Bears have a sharp sense of smell, and that can sometimes lead them to scavenge for food in campsites.

"Even though they're incredibly strong and surprisingly fast, black bears will typically do everything they can to avoid people," DeBloois said. "When a bear finds food, though, that all changes. Once it finds food, a bear will often become aggressive toward anything it perceives as threatening the area where it found the food — that includes people."

Wildlife experts urge campers to store all food and scented items (like deodorant and toothpaste) away from tents — in cars or trailers. Never leave food outside overnight, and never put it inside your tent. Also keep cooking areas clean, and never leave scraps of food or trash littered around campsites.

If camping or hiking in bear country, experts also advise people to bring bear spray — and don't hike alone. They also recommend hikers make plenty of noise to avoid catching a bear or mountain lion off guard.

Although it may seem like common sense, wildlife experts also urge people to never feed bears — even though bear cubs may seem cute. Once a bear loses its fear of people, that could eventually force wildlife officers to kill the bear to keep the public safe.

If you ever encounter a bear, wildlife experts say to follow these guidelines:

  • Stand your ground: Never back up, lie down or play dead. Stay calm and give the bear a chance to leave. Prepare to use your bear spray or another deterrent.
  • Don't run away or climb a tree: Black bears are excellent climbers and can run up to 35 mph. You cannot out-climb or outrun them.
  • Know bear behavior: If a bear stands up, grunts, moans or makes other sounds, it's not being aggressive. These are the ways a bear gets a better look or smell and expresses its interest.
  • If a black bear attacks, always fight back: Never give up. People have successfully defended themselves with almost anything: rocks, sticks, backpacks, water bottles and even their hands and feet.

For more tips on staying safe in the wild, visit the Utah Division of Wildlife Resource's website.

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Katie McKellar

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