REGULAR HOKKAIDO HIKERS WILL SEE BEARS
In over a decade of hiking Hokkaido’s hills I’ve only twice seen a brown bear. The first time was on the upper slopes of Rausu-dake. The terrain was open so my companion and I could see it from a few hundred yards away as it moved closer, undeterred by the blowing of whistles. When it got onto the hiking trail itself and began to move down towards us we decided it was time to abandon our climb and retreat. A few years later I had a far more distant sighting from the summit of Tomuraushi. On the other hand, I’ve come across signs of their presence in the form of paw prints, droppings and uprooted flower fields far more often, some fresh enough to raise my anxiety levels and make me thankful for the bear spray that lives on my rucksack hipbelt. But on the whole, I always figured I was more at risk from much smaller creatures found in Hokkaido’s wilds – hornets, ticks, and tiniest of all, the echinococcus parasite.
Bear encounters are increasing in frequency in Hokkaido, in all kinds of terrain including urban peripheries. Do not assume there will not be bears where you are going.
However, actual attacks have not increased significantly, remain rare and do not usually involve hikers on established trails.
Make noise when hiking, especially on forest trails and in undergrowth, and consider carrying a bell. If practical, carry bear spray and have it accessible.
The recent media attention on the spate of bear attacks, including fatalities, makes me wonder if I should be reconsidering this attitude, especially as one victim appears to have been a hiker. This is unusual as attacks on hikers are usually extremely rare; the worst incident I know of took place on Kamuiekuuchikaushi-yama in the Hidaka mountains in 1970, and involved a female bear stalking a university hiking group from Kyushu, killing three of them in separate attacks over a couple of days (see an overview of the incident in Japanese here).
In fact, most of those unfortunate enough to be killed or injured by bears in recent decades have been hunters (41%), or people off the trails gathering wild vegetables or mushrooms (24%), or engaged in forestry work.
In the vast number of scenarios where people have been attacked by bears in Hokkaido, the human has strayed into the bear’s territory and is competing for its food resources. Thick undergrowth also dramatically increases the chances of an unexpected encounter and an attack from a startled bear. The general consensus has been that bears will actively avoid humans and move away if aware of our presence, hence the need to make a noise when hiking through undergrowth.
The recent attacks, however, seem to have been aggressive and deliberate. So what is the current situation with regard to Hokkaido’s bears?
SHORT HISTORY LESSON ABOUT HOKKAIDO BEARS
Hokkaido is home to Japan’s only population of brown bears, ursus arctos, known as higuma in Japanese. The bears that live in the rest of Japan are the smaller Asian black bear or tsukinowaguma, named after the white patch on their chests. Hokkaido’s brown bears have always been part of the island’s image as a wild frontier and have a fearsome reputation, epitomized by the Sankebetsu Incident in 1915 in which a massive male bear terrorized a remote farming hamlet for days, killing seven people.
The Ainu people revered bears in Hokkaido as kimun kamuy, the primary animal deity of the mountains, and the iyomante or ‘bear ceremony’ was a central religious rite. Ainu men hunted bears to prove their manhood, and bearskins and gall bladders (for their supposed medicinal properties) were valued trade items.
With the mass settlement of Hokkaido bears were hunted as a danger to humans and livestock. Culling of bears took place in spring as they emerged from hibernation, as it was easy for hunters to move around and follow tracks on the late spring snow (see a close encounter on Youtube here). This official spring cull began in 1966 and continued up until 1990 when the mood shifted more towards conservation and co-existence as Hokkaido promoted its image of bountiful nature, daishizen. As a result the population rebounded and was estimated in 2012 by the Hokkaido authorities to be possibly 10,600 (plus or minus 6700 so a large margin of error), an increase by a factor of 1.8 over 23 years (Hokkaido, 2017).
ENCOUNTERS WITH HUMANS
Increased numbers of bears would not necessarily result in increased contact with humans if they remained within the vast forest tracts of Hokkaido’s wild mountain ranges. But other factors are also at work. Ongoing rural depopulation due to the ageing society has led to many peripheral farms and fields being abandoned, encouraging bears to move closer to settlements for food, raiding fields and orchards. Contact typically occurs in autumn when bears feed most actively to prepare for hibernation, particularly in years where their natural food supplies such as acorns and beechnuts have been reduced by bad weather. Recently, however, bears are appearing at all times of year.
A related factor is a decline in the number of hunters in Hokkaido, a combination of the shrinking and ageing rural population and the strict regulations on hunting and gun ownership. Individual hunters can still hunt bears under license, though unsurprisingly numbers show a downward trend. In 2018, 39 bears were shot by sport hunters, as opposed to 154 in 2001. However, despite abandoning the official spring cull thirty years ago, the Hokkaido government grants permission for bears that appear around farms and residential areas to be removed – in effect, culled. Numbers taken under this nuisance control kill system have gone up dramatically in recent years, with 879 taken in 2018. Around one third are trapped, and the remainder shot by private hunters under assignment from the local municipal government. When bears damage crops, particularly corn and beet to the value of around 223 million yen in recent years, farmers are reluctant to bear the costs of electric fencing and cutting back surrounding bush, preferring to call in the local authorities at the first sign of a bear. Nevertheless, despite the high numbers of nuisance control kills, experts at the Hokkaido government are satisfied that there is no danger of extinction.
Many believe that Hokkaido’s bears are losing their fear of humans. According to an old friend at Hokkaido University, the bears of the Oshima Peninsula, the location for several recent fatal attacks including in July 2021, are regarded as especially aggressive. In some cases the victim’s bodies have been partially eaten and/or cached, indicating that they were targeted as prey, opportunistically or otherwise. In total, Hokkaido government figures give a total of 17 deaths and 39 injuries from brown bear attacks from 2000 to 2020. As of 8 August 2021, there have been seven incidents this year, resulting in three deaths and eight injured, including the four hurt in the bear ‘rampage’ in Sapporo on 18 June 2021. In the previous two decades only four people died while 27 were injured, so numbers have clearly increased (but are still lower than the 1960s). One can speculate that this is due to more encounters as bear numbers rise and they lose their fear of humans.
The ‘problem’ is not confined to the countryside. Bear numbers and sightings have increased around Sapporo, often dramatically presented by local news media. Rivers and other green spaces provide corridors along which they can move into urban areas. Bears are attracted to rubbish, especially food and organic waste from gardens and allotments. The city authorities set traps at hotspots and shoot bears sighted in urban areas out of justified fears for public safety. Prominent media coverage (I even read about the recent ‘bear rampage’ in Sapporo in a leading UK newspaper) is now generating a debate over how to manage the urban bear problem.
DO HIKERS NEED TO BE WORRIED?
So back to the original question – do we, as hikers and other users of Hokkaido’s outdoors, need to be worried? Hokkaido government figures do not show any significant trend of increased attacks in recent years, remaining steady at around three deaths and injuries annually. Expert advice still seems to be that bears will avoid humans if they are aware of our presence, so making a noise is still a good start. I always have two bells dangling from my sack, to the occasional annoyance of my companions (I will sometimes take them off in open terrain). If droppings and prints indicate bears are around I will also shout or use my whistle before going around a blind corner on the trail. Some locals hang a radio from their packs. The first piece of official advice on bear encounters is try not to encounter one at all.
TAKE CARE WHEN CAMPING
Another important point is never, ever leave any rubbish in the hills to attract bears to the trails. Pack it out. Unlike in wilderness areas of North America with large bear populations the protocols for the storage and preparation of food while wild camping are non-existent here. Most people cook where they camp and store food in their tents, and while I’ve heard of incidents where tents have been ‘investigated’ by bears I have no hard facts on this (although it was apparently a factor in the Hidaka tragedy). In national parks camping is usually at designated spots, but only at a few places in Shiretoko (or the campground in Jozankei below) are bear-proof metal storage bins provided.
Bears are also individuals with their own unpredictable characters, and some are more aggressive. A female with cubs is extremely dangerous and likely to attack if she feels they are threatened. A geologist working in the east Hokkaido mountains once told me how his car was attacked from behind when he stopped on a forest road to watch a couple of cubs playing.
So is it worth carrying bear spray, especially if you are only visiting Hokkaido? After all, it isn’t cheap and you probably need a holster as well to keep it immediately accessible as it is pointless if buried in your pack. It also only has a shelf life of a few years and will have to be replaced, though apparently it is the propellant that degrades rather than the active pepper ingredients so testing it at the start of every season to check if it still works may prolong its use. Not a recommendation, just what I do. Personally, I regard it as a good investment and would never go into the Hokkaido backcountry outside of winter without it. Note, however, that not all of the Hokkaido Wilds team is quite as insistent, and from our experience, it seems most hikers in Hokkaido don’t carry bear spray.
Also note that large-capacity bear spray canisters (larger than 118ml/4fl.oz) cannot be carried on or checked in on international flights, if you’re visiting from overseas. Bear spray can be ordered online in Japan though, on Amazon.jp (affiliate link here), and sent to your accommodation ahead of time.
BEAR ENCOUNTER STRATEGIES
If you are unlucky enough to come face to face with a bear at close quarters in Hokkaido, then the official advice is the same as anywhere else in the world. Immediately stop, stay calm, try to evaluate the situation and then back off slowly and carefully. Don’t shout, wave your arms, or throw anything at it. Never turn your back and run – this triggers the bear’s instincts and it will come after you for sure. Considering that they can run faster than a horse over short distances you won’t stand a chance. They can also climb trees much better than you. If you see cubs then the situation is far more dangerous and you should immediately retreat.
In reality though, in Hokkaido this is the worst case scenario and very unlikely. I’ve only come across one report of a foreigner having to use bear spray, a photographer off the trail in Shiretoko (which has the densest population of bears on the island) who was stalked and attacked by a large male bear, possibly protecting territory. By his account, the spray saved his life.
- Bear encounters are increasing in frequency in Hokkaido, in all kinds of terrain including urban peripheries. Do not assume there will not be bears where you are going.
- However, actual attacks have not increased significantly, remain rare and do not usually involve hikers on established trails.
- Be prepared when you go hiking with some way to make a noise, especially on forest trails and in undergrowth. Carry bear spray and have it accessible.
- Don’t leave rubbish/garbage in the hills.
- If you see a bear then back off slowly. If it is at close quarters then don’t make any aggressive moves. Never run.
- If there are cubs around leave the area immediately.
Hokkaido Prefecture. (2015, December). Higuma seisokusu no suitei ni tsuite [Inferences regarding number of higuma]. https://www.heronconservation.org/media/JHBC/vol03/art01/resources/hokkaido-2015.pdf
Hokkaido Prefecture. (2017). Hokkaido higuma kanrikeikaku no gaiyo [Hokkaido bear management plan summary]. https://www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/fs/2/4/8/8/0/6/9/_/hokkaido_bear_management_plan_summary01.pdf
Hokkaido Prefecture. (2020, December). Higuma hokakusu higai no jokyo [Number of captured bears and damage situation]. https://www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/fs/2/4/8/8/0/7/6/_/data10.pdf
Hokkaido Shimbun Newspaper. (n.d.). Higuma tokushu hogoseisaku he tenkan zoka no yoin [Higuma special – move towards protection and reasons for increase in numbers]. Hokkaido Shimbun Digital Version. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from https://www.hokkaido-np.co.jp/higuma/hogo/
Mano, T. and N. Ishii (2008). Bear gallbladder trade issues and a framework for bear management in Japan. Ursus 19(2): 122-29.
Sapporo City. (n.d.). Higuma taisaku [Brown bear strategy]. Sapporo City Official Website. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from https://www.city.sapporo.jp/kurashi/animal/choju/kuma/index.html
Many thanks also to Dr Mano of the Hokkaido Research Organization (北海道立総合研究機構) for his personal communication.
14 thoughts on “Bear encounters increasing in Hokkaido – should hikers be worried?”
Hey man, great write up. Just wondering regarding bear spray, if we’re flying domestic from Osaka to Sapporo is it okay to bring bear spray? Unsure because your article specifically refers to restrictions only applying to international flights
Cheers Ollie. My understanding is that standard bear spray canisters are banned on domestic flights too. Japanese internet posters suggest using a takkyubin courier service to get it delivered in advance to a hotel or other address in Hokkaido if possible, specifying that it has to go by land. I’ve never had to try so can’t guarantee that this method works!
A Hokkaido brown bear population of over 10,000? No way. All of Alaska has in the neighborhood of 30,000; British Columbia in the same ballpark. These are, relative to Hokkaido, simply immense landscapes. I could perhaps believe 2000-2500. If the Japanese government are really killing ~800 bears a year they will shortly drive the population to extinction. I have seen no evidence of careful population studies like those carried out in the US on lower 48 grizzly populations (under 2000 all told, I think).
Ursus Arctos has a pretty low reproductive rate, and isolated populations of the species have been extirpated with depressing regularity.
If you argue that the Hokkaido bears are different, I would say, sure, but not that different. European populations of brown bear (smaller, meeker and more retiring than north American or Kamchatka bears) have equally low reproductive rates.
I note that black bears have been driven to extinction on Kyushu and are pretty much on the brink in Shikoku. It is not safe to assume that governmental bodies, particularly ones heavily influenced by agricultural or hunting interests, know what they are doing when they are “managing” wildlife.
That’s a really good point. The official estimated population has such a large margin of error built into it that it’s hard to be confident they really know. I was shocked when I saw the figures for the numbers ‘taken’ (捕獲 ー as far as I could determine this means killed as it seems the one third that are trapped are then euthanised but it was hard to get a definitive answer), roughly two bears a day. On the other hand, since this number has been over 600 for many years now a population of 2000 would have already been wiped out. Could Hokkaido’s forests and farmlands be a richer habitat for bears than Alaska? I don’t know. Certainly some Japanese scientists are also concerned about extinction, one paper I read criticised the attitudes of the authorities as not having changed since the early colonisation period when bears were basically vermin to be exterminated.
can Hokkaido support Ursus arctos pop densities higher than virtually anyplace else? Some thoughts that occur to me:
1) In North America, which I am most familiar with, brown bears are sympatric with North American black bears (Ursus americanus) over virtually their entire surviving range. So they partition the habitat, and inter-species competition tends to make them physically and behaviorally different from each other. General vibe here is, black bears are tied to forests, and are per-bear, much more timid, smaller, and more retiring than brown bears, whereas grizzlies have a predilection for open country and have a more truculent reputation. Most hikers are scared of grizzlies, not of black bears.
Black bear pops where I live (Oregon, Washington states) are large–one reads pop estimates of around 25- 30,000 from each state. At the right time and place (e.g. alpine parkland during cascade huckleberry season in the Olympic mts) one can spot ~25 bears a day. Grizzly pops are very small and confined to the far NE and N of Washington. In areas where there are no longer grizzlies one can observe black bears doing somewhat grizzlyish things, such as venturing far out into treeless steppe country in early spring . Something they would almost certainly never dare to do if there were grizzlies about.
In Hokkaido ヒグマ do not have to share their habitat with any other bear species, and to my eyes look and behave somewhat black-bearishly. That is, they are associated with forests, not that aggressive, and are on the small side. So it stands to reason that they may be able to exist closer to N American black bear densities than N American grizzly densities.
2) Is Hokkaido somehow uniquely productive bear habitat? I don’t think so. Decent, for sure, but not nearly as good as it was during the pre-Meiji epoch. Humans have decisively taken over the low, flat productive parts of the landscape, drained and diked most of the marshland, and pretty much totally destroyed anadromous fish runs (Indeed, their predilection for diking damming and channelizing every watercourse and armoring shoreline is both eye-popping and depressing to this North American). Where such runs still exist, and where bears can get to them (e.g. Kamchatka, Alaska, coastal BC) they can support remarkably high bear densities, even in areas where strictly terrestrial environments are rather unproductive. (Consider those pics we have all seen of bears hanging out at Brooks river falls in Katmai NP). In this regard note that Shiretoko, said to support a lot of bears, is virtually the last place in Hokkaido where bears have good access to marine resources. And there are even a couple of small rivers there with surviving salmon runs.
Hokkaido does not seem to have much in the way of nut mast. Beeches barely make it into southern Hokkaido. Oaks? They’re there, I guess; I came across a blog posting from Shiretoko claiming ミズナラ is an important food resource. Interesting, actually; we have a *lot* of oak species in the US, and oak-dominated forests support high bear pops (I’m thinking of Pennsylvania in the eastern US, and California oak savanna). But the oak genus isn’t that cold-hardy over here; ミズナラ by contrast seems pretty darn cold-tolerant.
Regarding humans occupying the lowlands, I note that montane bears in temperate zones have pretty regular movement patterns. When they wake up hungry in the spring they go low looking for early green-up areas. Marshes, floodplains, river valleys. It’s a time of year when human-bear conflicts tend to spike. An example, In that season, bears from the grizzly population associated with the northern continental divide in Montana can follow river courses out onto the great plains for thirty, forty, fifty miles off protected land. Closer to home, I conjecture that one reason that Olympic National Park has so darn many black bears is that the park and surrounding protected areas contain a decent quotient of low valleys in pristine condition, providing good early-season resources. If one look at both the Daisetsuzan and Hidaka regions with that lens, it’s a good bet that the bears have lost a lot of their traditional early-season habitat in the Tokachi plain and Asahikawa valley. I could see bears venturing south from the Hidaka range all the way to the short little floodplain estuaries which line the coast there, something which they can no longer do without getting into trouble.
3) My overall impression of the prefectural government’s actions is not favorable. It reminds me of one of the more retrograde state fish and game departments we have over here. Their policies are not informed by conservation biology thinking. Whatever the actual size of the population (nobody knows, let’s just say it), removing 800 bears a year is simply *not* sustainable. They need to think about ways to reduce conflict. How to do that depends on what, exactly, the problems are. Are the bears getting into garbage and animal feed? Well, everybody needs to be educated about how to store such things. Bears are all about food. Remove the food, the bears will stay away. Is it a particular crop? As an example I note that in Spain (where there was an issue with bears destroying beehives) governments and NGOs incentivized the installation of electric fences.
I would also like to see some thinking about maintaining or re-establishing connectivity between various sub-populations. Cut a population up into bits, and the isolated subpopulations will wink out, one by one. It’s a good bet, for example, that bears on the Oshima peninsula are reproductively isolated from bears elsewhere by the Sapporo metro area. And Shiretoko’s connection to the rest of Hokkaido’s bears looks a bit precarious.
Enough said, really. Too bad Japanese are so reluctant to speak out and rock the collective boat…
Thanks for the detailed response, your observations and comparisons with North America and other species are really interesting for someone like myself who grew up in places without any bears at all. I definitely agree that numbers being currently culled are disturbingly high and put the population at risk of extinction or perhaps being confined to a last haven in Shiretoko. Or will the ongoing depopulation of rural Hokkaido work to offset this? In any event, despite the frequent media coverage of local sightings and the usual warnings about leaving rubbish out, there seems to be a lack of urgency in having a widespread public debate on the issue. Given that the brown bear is one of the symbols of Hokkaido I would have thought it would have more champions among the local population but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Thanks so much for organizing this data for us. I’d been through a lot of Japanese-language government reports and English language newspaper columns, but you’ve done the best job. I’d even started my own Excel sheet to make figures, but you’ve given us the accurate data looking great.
I’ve asked some of my colleagues at Hokkaido University Vet Med about the non-hunted ‘captured’ bears; they agree with you, the vast majority of that number have been culled. The hunted numbers only represent those taken during official hunting season. Other deaths include farm- or urban-encroaching bears, training for novice hunters, and trap-captured then likely culled.
Also, small note: your figure for bear population is titled 1990-2021.
Thanks Mike! Rob deserves the credit for doing all the graphs and presenting the stats etc. It was an interesting little project as I had been curious about what is going on for a while. Luckily Dr Mano was able to confirm my suspicions about the nuisance control kills. I hadn’t heard about training for novice hunters before though.
Thanks for pointing out the typo!
“In 2018, 39 bears were shot by hunters, as opposed to 154 in 2001. However, despite abandoning the official spring cull thirty years ago, the Hokkaido government grants permission for problem bears to be removed – in effect, culled. Numbers shot or trapped under this system have gone up dramatically in recent years, with 879 taken in 2018. ”
So 840 trapped (alive?) and 39 killed in 2018? That 879 number seems like an error.
Nope, those are the Docho figures for 2018. 39 hunted 狩猟 and 879 taken under permission 許可捕獲, total 918. The latter involves both trapping and shooting, but there is no breakdown between the two. I was also unable to determine the fate of those trapped, but I doubt very much that they are released back into the wild. I was shocked at the numbers. In 1994 the combined total was ‘only’ 177.
No offense, but those numbers don’t make sense. I looked in your references but can’t find the link that refers to those specifi number, so could you please point it out? Thanks!
No problem. It’s the third link on the list.
Yes, make some noise, especially near rivers too. Call out, clap or shake your hip bell. I encountered my 2nd bear last week at the forest edge, he grunted and swiftly moved away when he heard me, I just saw his shoulders (or arse?)
Good point about rivers, thanks! Where were you hiking?