Are Grizzly Bears Truly Dangerous?

Grizzly bears are fierce predators, but they try to avoid conflict with humans when possible. Still, when trekking in grizzly bear territories, you should exercise caution.

Nov 4, 2023By Michael C., BA Fisheries and Wildlife
are grizzly bears truly dangerous

The grizzly bear is a strong, powerful beast that has instilled both fear and respect amongst people for hundreds of years; however, some misconceptions surround the reputation of these bruins. Read on to learn more about whether these animals are truly dangerous, along with some useful safety tips when visiting grizzly bear territory!

Grizzly Bears Avoid Conflict When Possible

bear roaring on log
Image credit: Carl Johan Heickendorf/Flickr

It goes without saying; grizzly bears are dangerous animals that can inflict life-threatening physical injuries. These bruins are said to be around five times stronger than an average person, and they sport a powerful bite force that measures around 975-1,160 PSI (pounds per square inch). Even a single swipe from its paw can inflict considerable damage!

Even though grizzly bears mostly eat plant matter (like the gentle panda), they are apex predators in ecosystems wherever they are present, able to take down large prey, such as moose and bison (they like easy targets, usually preying on injured or weak prey). Though they may be outnumbered by packs of wolves, grizzlies will sometimes chase them off from their kills. Even cougars keep their distance.

While grizzly bears aren’t to be trifled with, it is important to realize that they would rather avoid conflict as much as possible. Contrary to popular belief, grizzly bears aren’t the mindless, unpredictable killing machines that many people make them out to be. They’ll usually bluff charge their perceived threats instead of attacking. Most bears do not go out of their way to hunt humans and would rather leave you alone.

Grizzly Bears Only Attack When Provoked

grizzly running at car
Image credit: Chuck Bartlebaugh

As mentioned previously, grizzly bears prefer to avoid human conflict whenever possible. Yet, human settlements are encroaching on bear territory–increasing the risk of serious encounters.

Most attacks on humans are either from mother bears protecting their cubs or bears that have been suddenly spooked at close range. Unlike black bears that can climb trees to retreat from people, full-grown grizzly bears are simply too large to climb and therefore must stand their ground if needed.

Most problematic encounters occur when grizzly bears associate humans positively as a source of food; garbage is much easier than finding food in the wild for animals like bears. This brings more bears into closer proximity with people, increasing the risks of attacks on both sides. Attempts to ward off bears, ranging from rubber bullets to loud noises, become useless when they already associate people with food.

Identifying Grizzly Bears in the Wild

black bear vs grizzly bear comparison
Image credit: National Park Service

It is very important to be able to identify grizzly bears, as they behave differently in situations compared to black bears. As mentioned earlier, grizzly bears will usually stand their ground if threatened. Black bears are generally easy to scare off.

Body size isn’t reliable. While male grizzlies are larger than black bears, male black bears can also be similar in size to female grizzlies. Grizzly bears will also sport a prominent hump on their backs. These are large shoulder muscles that allow them to provide extra strength in digging and tearing apart objects (such as wood) while they search for food.

A grizzly bear’s ears are smaller and more rounded than a black bear’s. A grizzly bear’s claws are lighter in color and longer than a black bear’s, which are darker and shorter, respectively. Do not rely solely on the fur color of the bear; some black bears come in shades of brown; meanwhile, some grizzlies can almost look black in coloration. In areas where both bear species coexist, grizzlies will dominate black bears during interactions.

Staying Safe Around Grizzly Bears

bear walking towards hiker on trail
Image credit: Jake Bortscheller/National Park Service

Here are some basic tips when adventuring in Alaska, Canada, and other places where grizzly bears inhabit.

If you’re living in bear country or are simply visiting, be sure to minimize any outdoor activities around dawn, dusk, and night. Grizzlies are typically most active around these times. Bears are attracted to almost all kinds of smells, so be sure to secure all foods, utensils, and trash in bear-resistant containers. NEVER, EVER feed a wild bear––no matter how adorable these deadly predators seem.

If you’re outside, be sure to always carry bear spray. Never apply it on anything; bear spray is not a repellent and is meant to be sprayed directly at the bears, like pepper spray. Be sure to learn how to use bear spray properly to prevent self-injury. Always travel in groups, and always make noises to let bears know if you’re nearby. If you’re biking or hiking, be extra alert.

If you come face-to-face with a grizzly, remain calm. They don’t want any trouble, just like you.

Resources for Staying Safe Against Grizzly Bears

bear in field of grass
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some programs and organizations provide much more comprehensive advice, especially for life-threatening interactions. Defenders of Wildlife, BearSmart, and the National Park Service are all valuable references to consult for not just grizzly bear safety, but for other bear species as well. BearSmart even has valuable information regarding specific situations, such as for hunters, beekeepers, and ranchers.

Michael C.
By Michael C.BA Fisheries and Wildlife

Michael holds a BS degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University. He formerly worked at a pet store as an animal care associate and is the former president of the MSU Herpetological Society. Michael currently owns three snakes (a corn snake, a Kenyan sand boa, and a checkered garter snake) and a leopard gecko. Interests include almost anything animal-related. Michael enjoys drawing, gaming, and having fun in his free time.