This is a behavior rarely caught on camera, and is the result of three live cams set up by explore.org, Polar Bears International, Parks Canada, and Frontiers North Adventure to capture the annual polar bear migration this year (the point being to get people to think more about how climate change is impacting the north, and inspire an annual event similar to Earth Day (or Groundhog Day).
Good news for ladies who like the woods—your period is (probably) not something that attracts (most) bears.
There are not a lot of studies addressing this particular topic, but a National Park Service paper published this year took a look at all of them and put the scattered pieces information together into a single puzzle. It's probably not a complete picture, but it's certainly better than hearsay and random, sexist stories you heard from your grandpa's drinking buddy. More importantly, even when there is a documented risk between menstrual blood and bears, that shouldn't be construed as a reason to keep women out of the wilderness. After all, bears are attracted to food, and we don't tell people they shouldn't eat while backpacking. Instead, we have practices that reduce risk. Same thing applies here.
Here's what we learn:
1) You can menstruate freely and without fear in the contiguous 48 United States. Grizzlies, and particularly black bears, don't seem to be interested in what's happening in your pants. Evaluating hundreds of grizzly attacks found no correlation between menstruation and risk of attack. In the case of black bears, this has actually been tested experimentally, with researchers leaving used tampons from various stages of menstruation out in the wilderness and watching how the bears respond. (Science!) The bears completely ignored the tampons.
2) Yellowstone data suggests food is a much bigger risk than menstruation. Analysis of bear attack data from Yellowstone National Park doesn't even consider attacks that happened before 1980. Why? Because that was before stringent rules on in-park food storage and bear feeding. The vast majority of pre-1980 attacks are already known to be related to bears seeking out human food. Meanwhile, between 1980 and 2011 only 9 women have been injured by bears in Yellowstone. Of those, six were incidents where women and bears ran into each other unexpectedly on hiking trails. In the other three incidents, which didn't rely on the element of surprise and are, thus, more likely to have attraction factors involved none of the women were menstruating at the time of the attack.
3) Polar bears are a whole 'nother story. Two different polar bear studies, one in captivity and one in the wild, have shown that those bears are attracted to human menstrual blood—even more than plain old human blood that wasn't related to menstruation. They are also attracted to the scent of seals and (again) human food.
Big picture: Food still seems to be a bigger issue in bear attacks than menstruating ladies. And, as with food, the Park Service has guidelines that you can follow for how to best deal with tampons while in the wilderness.
Read the full National Parks Service report, including the safety guidelines for women on their periods
#Bearcam may just be the best thing ever. Explore.org has two hi-def webcams turned on in Alaska's Brooks River in Katmai National Park. More than a hundred Brown Bears gather along a mile long stretch of Brooks River there each year, to pig out on the world's largest Sockeye Salmon run. And now, we get to watch the whole thing online. (via @gregmitchell)
Freelance journalist Jessica Grose has a fascinating "long read" in Slate this week (and I'm not kidding about the long part, 8,000 words!) about Bear True Crimes: wild bears in and around Yellowstone National Park who, for one reason or another, attack humans.
Why does this happen? What's it like for the humans who survive? Who investigates the attacks, all CSI-style with DNA analysis and whatnot, and figures out what to do with the problem bears? Is it right to kill them?
Grose's report begins with the story of a mother bear who attacked campers in late 2011. Snip:
The euthanization of the bear known as “the Wapiti sow” was the culmination of a series of horrifying events that had gripped Yellowstone for months, and alarmed rangers, visitors, and the conservation biologists tasked with keeping grizzly bears safe. In separate incidents in July and August, grizzlies had killed hikers in Yellowstone, prompting a months-long investigation replete with crime scene reconstructions and DNA analysis, and a furious race to capture the prime suspect. The execution of the Wapiti sow opens a window on a special criminal justice system designed to protect endangered bears and the humans who share their land. It also demonstrates the difficulty of judging animals for crimes against us. The government bear biologists who enforce grizzly law and order grapple with the impossibility of the task every day. In the most painful cases, the people who protect these sublime, endangered animals must also put them to death.
Read Grose's "A Death in Yellowstone: On the trail of a killer grizzly bear," then read her interview with a woman who was attacked by a grizzly and lived to tell the tale. There's an interview with Grose about the reporting project at The Awl.
When I traveled to this area with Miles O'Brien for a PBS NewsHour piece about wolves last year (watch the video!), we visited the very room where some elements of the Wapiti Sow case would be managed just months later. It's the Office of Bear Management.
(Photo: "Growling Grizzly Bear with Snow," by Dennis Donohue, via Shutterstock)