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The Case for Bear Spray

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The Case for Bear Spray

The other side of the grizzly debate


“Some experts discourage people from depending on a handgun unless they are in law enforcement or frequently train for high-pressure situations,” writes Zimo, in the “Ask Zimo” column for the Idaho Statesman. “Most people just aren’t going to be poised or accurate enough under pressure to make a lethal shot from a handgun during a bear or cougar attack.”

Local outdoors writer and photographer Tim Christie would agree. “I’ve interviewed several people for articles who have been attacked and almost to a person they’ve all said that the emotional reactions were overwhelming. Some shot the bear and killed it... a couple of them were carrying a shotgun, a much better weapon than a rifle, most using double ought buck shot, which is three or four large pellets which spread out, increasing the odds of making a killing shot.”

He has some personal experience to back that up as well, from a grizzly bear encounter at Glacier National Park. 

“First, your emotional reaction to a bear attack is similar to being in a car accident,” he said. “You see it coming and yet your mind/body in many cases can’t react because it’s so overwhelming.” Deadly lethal with a rifle himself, he says, “Could I have shot the bear that attacked me in Glacier? Hell no. I was so overwhelmed I was just lucky to think clear enough to climb a tree. Plus putting a killing shot into a bear that is not running straight on, that may be weaving, moving from side to side, yet coming with contact in mind... it’s not an easy challenge. Certainly killing bear with a big bullet is possible, but bear spray is a shotgun-like blast that, according to what I’ve read, is 85 percent effective in deterring an attack. You’ve got to be able to pull off the safety, direct it, etc., but likely that’s more effective than trying to lethally shoot a charging bear. Small target, moving fast, and you’ve got to be one cool customer.”

And a prepared one. “You need to keep that pepper spray accessible,” he added, pointing out it won’t do you much good if it’s buried in your pack.

This viewpoint is backed up by statistics from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fact sheet #8 of Living with Grizzlies, called “Bear Spray vs. Bullets,” reports “Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality—based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50 percent of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research—a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”

And they’re not the only ones. Brigham Young University bear biologist Thomas Smith “analyzed 20 years worth of incidents in Alaska, and found that the wilderness equivalent of pepper spray effectively deterred bears 92 percent of the time, whereas guns only did the trick one-third less often,” it was reported.

It is worth noting that in a hunter/bear encounter that took place in October, the man being attacked was accidentally—and fatally—shot by his hunting partner. The emotions triggered by a bear attack, and their effect on your own reactions, are almost impossible to practice for.

Alex Robinson, writing in “Newshound,” pointed out that choosing between bear spray or a bullet to protect yourself from a bear is sometimes going to depend on your given situation. “For example on an extremely windy day, bear spray could be useless. As far as firearms go, the caliber of the gun will make a huge difference in how effective it will be in stopping a charging bear. Also, a person’s ability to use their tool of choice will have a large impact on the outcome.”

Traditional advice on avoiding bears when you’re in their territory doesn’t offer much to the hunter in the woods. A hiker may well be able to make a lot of noise and do other things to make himself more noticeable (giving bears the opportunity to give you a wide berth), but hunters are operating differently. Their goal is to move silently and unnoticed through the woods and, even worse, are often attempting to appear as something a bear might think is mighty tasty for dinner. Not to mention when gutting, cutting and hauling meat that a bear knows is a good dinner.

For hunters, typical advice in bear country is to hunt with a partner; avoid areas where you see fresh bear scat; retrieve game animals as quickly as possible and be extra alert while processing; avoid “dark timber” during the middle of the day as this can be a favored location for bears to bed; if not removing the carcass immediately, separate the carcass from the gut pile, and leave it in an area where it can safely be observed from a distance.

And, of course—if a bear claims your kill, don’t argue about it. Just leave.

It seems this year as if the news has been filled with stories of human/bear encounters and, following close behind, the never-ending debate regarding the best way to protect yourself when you’re out in the woods. If you find yourself in a situation where neither gun nor spray is an option, remember that your best bet is generally to “drop and protect”—fall flat on the ground, linking your hands behind your neck. This can be especially effective if you’re wearing a pack.

Regardless of the method you choose, preparation and practice are key. If you’re going out in the woods to hunt or hike, you must plan ahead of time for how you will react if a bear objects to your presence.

(Click here for the other side of the debate)


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Author info

Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, outdoors, wildlife, grizzly bear, bear spray, bear attacks, Idaho Statesman, Ask Zimo, Tim Christie, Bear Spray vs Bullets, Thomas Smith, BYU bear spray study, Alex Robinson, Newshound, Outdoor Life

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