A large boar in its prime, like this one along the Katmai coast, is an impressive animal. Photo by Scott Michael.
Another reason for the disparity between the number of black and grizzly bears in North America has to do with their habitat preferences and behavior, which is a function of their long evolutionary history. For centuries, frontiersmen that roamed the wilderness recognized that the grizzly is a much more dangerous beast than the black bear. In 1703 Baron Lahontan, in his book Memoir of A Fur Trader in Canada, made the observation “The reddish bears are mischievous creatures, for they fall fiercely upon the huntsmen, whereas the black one fly away.” In the journals of Lewis and Clark the grizzly is referred to as “a creature of extraordinary ferocity” and they noted that it would rather attack man than avoid him (ironically, the more detailed observations they include in their journals do not support this claim).
Theodore Roosevelt listed the Alaskan brown bear and then the grizzly as the most dangerous wild animals to man (note: these are one in the same species). He stated, “The king of the game beasts of temperate North America, because the most dangerous to hunters, is the grizzly bear.” In contrast, the back bear has never had such a dubious reputation. In his book Grizzly Country, Andy Russell says the following about the two species, “To compare him [the grizzly] with his lesser cousin, the black bear, is like standing a case of dynamite besides a sack of goose feathers.”
This is not to say that black bears do not attack people, but they do so much less frequently than grizzlies (In fact, in 2007 several people were killed by black bears in the Lower 48 States). Consider Dr. Stephen Herrero’s study that looked at injuries inflicted on humans by bears between 1960 and 1998 in Alberta, Canada. Of 42 serious or fatal attacks on humans in this region, 69 % were caused by grizzlies, while only 31 % were inflicted by the black bear. Then take into account that the latter is 38 times more common than U. arctos - it is very clear that the grizzly is by far the more dangerous of the two species (Herrero estimated that at this time, there were about 1,000 U. arctos in Alberta province and from 38,000 to 39,000 U. americanus). We will discuss the disposition of the grizzly in much more detail in future blogs (you might be surprised at some of my conclusions on just how dangerous grizzly bears are to humans!).
Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael