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Mythic fear versus reality in the Alaskan wilderness

S

EVERAL YEARS BEFORE I EVER SAW ALASKA, I TRUDGED

along a dusty trail in backwoods Maine, lugging a chainsaw. Thirty yards to my left, I glimpsed a small, dark shape shinnying up a poplar: black bear cub! I chucked my saw and ran like Usain Bolt, sprinting the half mile back to my car. The whole way, I was bracing for the impact of the slavering mother bear—the claws, the teeth. It never came. I rested aching lungs and legs, cautiously retrieved my saw later on, and counted myself lucky. Okay, ready for a pop quiz? Imagine you’re walking somewhere in The Great Land—maybe in the shadow of Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier, up some brushy hillside on the Kenai Peninsula, or along a creek in the Brooks Range. You come around a clump of alder, and there before you stand two young black bear cubs, less than 20 feet away. They moan and bawl, freaked out by your sudden appearance. At that moment, a deep woof echoes behind you, and there stands mom, glaring and huffing. You’re between her and her babies. What are your odds of being bowled over in the next few seconds, mauled, and possibly killed? Well, damn near zero. That’s right—nada, zilch, squat. Uh…say what? How can that possibly be? Even utter cheechakos know that you might as well stroll into the path of a runaway beer truck as mess with momma bear. But the point stands: in not

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BY NICK JANS

just Alaska, but across the entire North American continent, from Canada through Mexico, over centuries, there’s not one documented case of a female black bear (Ursus americanus) killing or even seriously injuring a person in defense of her cubs. Don’t worry if you flunked your little test. Most lifelong Alaskans would, too. I sure had no idea way back when, and didn’t fully figure it out until the late 1990s—my conclusions based on personal experiences and scientific input. Fact is, black bear mothers may well paw, stomp, growl, chatter their jaws, or make short, bluffing rushes toward too-near humans; but they stop short of contact, and often run their babies up a tree before retreating. Even when researchers were temporarily capturing cubs to weigh and examine, black bear females didn’t attack—in dozens of incidents, spanning decades. So, by now, you’re totally confused. Where the hell do all those stories of cub-defending mayhem come from? Some sort of not-so-urban myth? Or am I just spouting some misinformed, bear-hugging drivel? Actually, it’s a simple case of confusing one bear with another. When folks talk about mother bears fiercely guarding their young, they’re thinking of that other bear: Ursus arctos, the brown bear (interchangeably known as grizzly). While similar in basic appearance and behavior, and found in overlapping habitats, black and brown bears are two separate species, with

NICK JANS

Brown Bear, Black Bear

Female brown/grizzlies are fiercely defensive of their young.

A L A S K A M A G A Z I N E . C O M JULY/AUGUST 2019

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Profile for Cowboy Publishing Group

Alaska Magazine July 2019  

Alaska Magazine July 2019

Alaska Magazine July 2019  

Alaska Magazine July 2019