The fatal grizzly bear attack on a hiker in Yellowstone National Park last week is a tragic yet also extremely rare event, experts say.
On Monday, park officials released the hiker's identity as 63-year-old Lance Crosby, of Billings, Montana, who had been a seasonal employee at the park for five years.
Though bear attacks often garner fearful reactions from the public, the chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million, according to the Park Service.
Since Yellowstone National Park began keeping records of bear attacks in 1916, eight people have died. In comparison, more than three million people visit the park each year. (Related: "Bear Mauling in Wyoming: Why Do They Attack?")
“More people are killed each year by bee stings than by bears,” said John Beecham, co-chair of the Human-Bear Conflicts Expert Team of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Bear Specialist Group.
That's because bears generally keep to themselves unless they feel they're under threat and are forced to defend themselves, their young, or their food.
As for why we may think bear attacks are so much more common, Beecham has two words: the media.
“Every time a person is killed by a bear, the news media jumps all over it, but you don’t hear anything when someone is killed by a snake or by bee stings,” Beecham said.
Clean Humans Make Good Neighbors
Beecham says that bear encounters become more likely when bears regularly eat human food, which tends to be of higher quality than what most bears find on their own.
In the U.S., much of this food is considered scraps or human garbage, as well as food that’s improperly stored while camping or hiking. In other countries, bears are more likely to dig up vegetable gardens and destroy orchards and livestock. (See National Geographic's bear videos.)
Since the 1970s, Yellowstone has pushed visitors to dispose of food properly and store food in bear-proof containers while camping, which has helped limit bear encounters.
Still, bears can and do eat human food, and the sheer volume of visitors to the park means that bears can lose their fear of humans.
In fact, as their populations grow in some areas of the country, bears are getting more comfortable around us—which can lead to more dangerous run-ins. (See "Maulings by Bears: What's Behind the Recent Attacks?")
“Bears see hundreds of thousands of people each year, and they don’t get hurt. So they lose their fear, and get closer and closer to humans,” he said.
Don't Be Afraid
As for the Yellowstone grizzly who killed the hiker, the animal was captured in a trap on Friday evening and is undergoing tests to see if it was the bear in question. If so, the bear will be euthanized—standard policy with a bear that has killed a person.
To avoid getting yourself into a similar incident, Beecham prescribes knowledge and caution: The best defense against bears is knowing their behavior. (Also see "Canada Mauling Reflects Spike in Human-Bear Encounters.")
If you find yourself in an area with recent bear activity, such as fresh bear scat or a fresh kill, the best bet is to leave so the animal doesn’t feel compelled to defend its territory.
Even so, Beecham emphasized in a previous interview, bear attacks are "not something you need to be fearful of when you're in the woods."
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