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Today in Yellowstone National Park, somebody will probably see a bear. It happens almost every day this time of year. Usually, the bear and the person go their separate ways, but last summer, a couple of encounters turned deadly. From Wyoming Public Radio, Rebecca Martinez reports on what park officials are doing to help visitors stay safe.
REBECCA MARTINEZ, BYLINE: Of the three million people who visited Yellowstone last year, two were killed by grizzlies. In one incident, a California hiker surprised a mother grizzly and her cubs. The following month, a bear killed a Michigan man who was camping in the park. Mark Bruscino is a bear management biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He says the incidents were tragic, but a fatal encounter was a long time in coming.
MARK BRUSCINO: Twenty-five years without a fatal bear attack in the Greater Yellowstone Area was probably a pretty lucky period, given the amount of interactions we have between bears and people.
MARTINEZ: That's because the area's grizzly population has rebounded rapidly since it was placed on the endangered species list in 1975, and the number of visitors to Yellowstone has climbed steadily over the same period.
Park officials say visitors sometimes take safety for granted, in part because they're used to visiting zoos and amusement parks, where nature is much, much more controlled. So Yellowstone is trying to get the word out about bear safety. The park posts warnings at each entrance and trailhead. It offers tips in free park newspapers and in podcasts, such as travel in groups and secure your food and garbage.
AL NASH: Yellowstone is a wild place. This isn't a controlled environment.
MARTINEZ: Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash says it's the park's job to preserve the wilderness and educate visitors on how to keep themselves safe.
NASH: I fear that some visitors believe that if things were dangerous, we, the National Park Service, would somehow control it. That's not the case.
MARTINEZ: Nash says some park visitors get much closer to bears than the park's 100-yard-minimum distance. Bears generally don't attack people unless they feel threatened, but getting too close to them can do the trick. During a drive around the park, I saw a man get out of his SUV and come within just a few yards of a black bear to snap a photo. He drove away unscathed.
At another spot, dozens of cars stopped in the middle of the road and passengers got out to watch a black bear lumber by. Ranger Adam Willett saw the jam and stopped, calmly keeping the crowd away from the bear.
ADAM WILLETT: Yeah, unfortunately, people do try and get up close to them pretty frequently.
MARTINEZ: What do you do about that?
WILLETT: Sometimes you have to, you know, yell, get a little nasty or whatever.
MICHAEL MANARKATTU: We know that we need to keep away.
MARTINEZ: Michael Manarkattu is taking the park's messages to heart. He's visiting from the UK with his wife and two small children.
MANARKATTU: If we spot a bear, we were told not to look at it and sort of walk away, as if we've not seen it. Ideally, they said, you need to go in a group so that you can make some noises and, you know, the bear just generally doesn't come to you.
MARTINEZ: One huge talking point among Yellowstone officials is bear spray. It's basically industrial-strength pepper spray that comes in a can and attaches to a belt holster. It can be more effective than a firearm at stopping a charging bear, as long as it's on your belt and easy to reach, and not in your backpack or back in the car.
Although both bear attack victims last summer were experienced hikers, neither carried bear spray. Park spokesman Al Nash says Yellowstone is looking for even more ways to encourage visitors to protect themselves while still being able to enjoy the park's wilderness.
NASH: We do our best to protect them and the things they come to see, but we don't sanitize it. We cannot protect them from all the threats.
MARTINEZ: Modern-day zoo habitats can be pretty convincing, but people who make the trip to Yellowstone demand the real deal. So it's up to visitors to take real precautions and stay safe.
For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Martinez, in Laramie.
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