Sawtooth Association

The Alpine Examiner

November 20, 2023

Naturalist Blog

Getting to the heart of what matters in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Fear to Friend: Understanding Bears in the Sawtooths

The Sawtooth Wilderness is a huge place filled with unknowns. For me, the unknown I discovered was fear. After 300 miles of hiking throughout the Sawtooth Range in the Summer of 2023, I learned how to connect all the unknowns through the familiarity of my childhood. 


I have always loved bears. As a child, they made their way into my day-to-day, whether it was the stuffed bear that I treated as a doll or the bear-printed tights I would wear to ballet. I read every edition of Winnie the Pooh and equally loved the tale of Corduroy, the bear with the missing button. Even today, two of my favorite movies are Christopher Robin, and Paddington, which feature the live-action bears that the audience, and especially me, cannot get enough of.


However, now as a 21-year-old, my love for bears has turned into an irrational fear. As I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, the biggest predator was my neighbor’s dog, I never had to consider larger predators. So, as I arrived in the Sawtooths, I was stunned to see bear warning signs.


I rushed to the store to pick up a can of bear spray, and during every hike I began convincing myself a squirrel in a bush or burnt tree in the distance was actually a bear out to get me. I took every precaution I could, made noise, acted big (even when there were no bears around), and was always prepared to see one. 


As the summer carried on, my fear did not diminish until I decided to spend some time rereading my childhood favorite, the stories of Winnie the Pooh. The sense of nostalgia reminded me of all the friendly tales of bears. These reminders urged me to learn about bears outside of the children’s books. I began researching their presence in the Sawtooths.


Contrary to my irrational belief, the bears in the Sawtooths were not out to get me. In the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), there are only black bears; they are omnivores and feed on berries, fish, and insects… not humans. They will eat and get used to human food, so it is important to store all food in a hard-sided vehicle, container, or in a bear hang. When bears get into human food, they will likely return to campsites and begin causing problems or even be a safety threat to humans. 

Pictured is my campsite on the Alice/Toxaway loop- My food and other scented items were hung 100 feet+ from the site. Photo by Fiona Neeley

Proper bear hang measurements

Black bear attacks are rare, and there are no accounts of them occurring in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The last and only fatal account of bears in Idaho happened in 1880 along the Salmon River. The actual percentage of being attacked by a bear is about .00004%, it is more likely to be attacked by a crocodile or even struck by lightning. These statistics made me realize my fear was farfetched. 

Even though you may be afraid of snakes, spiders, or bears, a little research can show that the Sawtooth Wilderness is relatively free from animal dangers and also provides many comforts in its array of beautiful wildflowers, stunning scenery, and cool nights. The views, maybe with a chubby marmot or cute ground squirrel, aren't too far off from the imagery of a children's book. 

“Just because an animal is large, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want kindness; however big Tigger seems to be, remember that he wants as much kindness as Roo.” -Winnie the Pooh


Fiona is a Naturalist for the Sawtooth Historical and Interpretive Association. She spends her free time exploring the mountains, whether hiking, trail running, or backpacking!