Powerful predators with amazing strength and ferocity, they are as magnificent as they are maligned. Hunted to the verge of extinction for the better part of a century grizzlies and black bears now roam in growing numbers across North America's outback and as their numbers grow so too do their run-ins with people.
In the course of the last decade, incidents involving bears have spiked dramatically, a trend reflected in here in Utah and all across the West.
Spring 1992, Strawberry Reservoir: 12 year-old Crystal Gadd dragged from a camper shell in the middle of the night. A predatory black bear tries to carry her off. Her grandfather saves her in the nick of time.
In the summer of 2003, campers are attacked along the Green River. An 18 year old Oregon man is pulled from his sleeping bag with bite marks to his head and neck.
A few days later a St. George man is mauled at a river campsite; scratched and bitten he travels by raft for hours in order to get medical help. The next day rangers move in and the bear, driven mad by drought, is captured and killed.
And last summer, two Utah County brothers spend a terrifying night in the Utah wilderness when a black bear makes short work of their tent. While the brothers escaped serious injury, not every Utahn has been so lucky.
Utah State University wildlife professor Dr. Barrie Gilbert knows all too well the horrors of a bear encounter gone wrong.
He was a wildlife expert working for the forest service in 1977, when he says he made a series of costly mistakes in the heart of bear country. "It was on a high mountain range. We were ten miles from the nearest road. It was northwestern Yellowstone Park and probably the worst place in the world to be mauled by a bear. I came up over this nine thousand foot bear ridge and, there was a bear lying about 40 yards away. It's ears were laid back. It was sleek, low down coming at me like a lion in a charge. So, I basically panicked. I didn't have time to think of anything. I remember thinking I better put some space between me and that animal, cause look, it's serious and it was serious and there was no time to climb a tree. I had my face essentially torn off. I had my scalp taken off. My ears were hanging down, and they worked eleven hours and put about 990 stitches in me. I'm quite convinced if i had collapsed and become neutral then I would have no longer been a threat to that bear. He might have grabbed me by the back and thrown me twenty feet or something, but it would give up pretty quickly because its fear would subside. It would say this is something that stumbled on to me and I'm gonna get outta here, which the bear eventually did. A surprised bear is an angry bear, and an angry bear is a dangerous bear. So don't surprise them. Don't start the chain you know?"
Michael Dunn of Utah's Olympus Cove also knows about terrible chains of events unleashed by entering bear country unprepared. A morning jog in the Grand Tetons changed his life forever.
Dunn remembers, "This was a beautiful summer morning in 1994. I was not making noise, was not with any one else, was not doing the things you're supposed to when all of a sudden I hear what sounds like a big boulder breaking loose and crashing through the trees. When I heard that sound, I knew I was in immediate trouble. The hairs just stood up on the back of my neck and I knew even before seeing it, something was really, really wrong. You just can't believe it. You cannot believe there is a full grown bear that is charging you. I saw the bear at a distance of about forty yards. It was already at full speed. I had about two or three seconds to see this bear come straight at me and plow into me and just proceed to claw and bite and maul and do what bears do. I think maybe people understand bears are ferocious, but they're so agile. They're quick. I'm a pretty average adult male and this bear just did, whatever he wanted. I realized what I had to do was play dead. That's what I did and that's what ultimately saved my life."
Michael Dunn and Barrie Gilbert spent months recovering from their injuries. While both were brutally mauled they blame themselves for being unprepared and hope their experiences will serve as a warning to others. They stress knowing the type of bears you may encounter,how to recognize signs of aggression and how to store food in the wild.
Similar advice is offered by the experts at West Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. The center's animal curator, Libby Scott, has been working with bears for the last decade.
"These are wild animals. that makes them unpredictable. They all have their own personalities. You have to be ready to hike, camp, travel in bear country. Don't expect the bear to be ready for you," says Scott, who adds, "First, remember that bear encounters in the wild are very rare. Number two, there are many situations you may find yourself in when you've encountered a bear. If you've gotten between a mother and cubs, if you're on a hiking trail and you see a bear, but the bear doesn't see you, that's a good indication you need to change your plans. Leave the area. Slowly back up keep and your eyes on the bear. If that bear then sees you, the situation changes again. What is the bear doing? Is the bear acting nervous? Is the bear acting aggressive? Is the bear standing up to get a better look at me? Bears do stand up on their hind legs to get a better look. It's not a sign of aggression. Now if a bear comes toward you, a curiosity has happened. What you need to do now is to stop. The bear is trying to figure out who you are and what you are doing there? Backing up slowly, talking to the bear, waving your arms, letting the bear know you're human is what we recommend that you do. Now if that bear is suddenly acting aggressive, shaking its head, popping its jaw, growling at you, this is an aggresive bear. If you start acting big and angry, you've just told that bear that yes, I am a threat, and the bear is going to have to act in a defensive mode. This is where you need to stay calm and stand your ground. Chances are that bear is going to see you, smell you, hear you and think I want nothing to do with this. If the bear continues to pose a threat, resort to bear spray. I never go hiking without it, right on the hip, ready to go. Now if that bear is charging me, boom, bear spray! Not up in the air, not before 20 feet, not on the ground, but in the bears face. As for the old advice of playing dead, we recommend that the only time you play dead is when a bear is physically upon you. If that bear doesn't leave you alone within a short period of time and and continues to maul you, you need to fight back. It's as simple as that."
Scott went on to say, "The way you act in front of a black bear is not the way you act in front of a grizzly bear and visa versa. With black bears you do want to look big. You want to look aggressive. Any black bear you can't scare away is a bear I'm very afraid off. On the whole, a black bear that attacks and does not give up is a bear that wants to eat you. When grizzlies attack, they want to make sure you're not a threat and once you're not they leave."
Bear attacks are rare and both Barrie Gilbert and Micheal Dunn admit they did the wrong things and they don't blame the bears.
According to Dunn, "The bears are the last great symbol of the american wilderness. These bears are going to be gone some day. I think that's going to be a sad day because the represent the last untamed frontier."
For more information what you should do if confronted with a wild bear, log onto http://www.wildlife.utah.gov/bear/bear_safety.php.
For information on bear spray and other bear safety products, log onto: www.udap.com.
For more information of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, log onto: www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org.
Click here for printable map of Utah's black bear habitat