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Guns vs. Grizzlies

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Photo by Jean-Pierre Lavoie. Photo by Jean-Pierre Lavoie.

How to survive a worst-case scenario

State and federal agencies provide big game hunters in grizzly country with solid information on how to avoid conflicts with bears, but there’s scant advice on how to handle a dangerous encounter with a nearby bear or a charging grizzly. Here are 12 tips that will help hunters survive a worst-case scenario with a grizzly.

1 Bring enough gun. Lots of people hunt deer with a .243 Winchester, but would you want to face a charging grizzly with a .243? In 1983, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska did comprehensive review of firearms meant purely for self-defense against bears. The recommendation was a .338 Winchester Magnum, a .375 HandH Magnum, or a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs. As an aside, the report mentioned that big game hunters in grizzly country should carry at least a 30/06 using stout bullets. It’s unfortunate that wildlife agencies haven’t done a thorough test of firearms more recently for the benefit of sportsmen.

2 Be aware that most charges are triggered by startling a grizzly at a distance of 50 yards or less. People accidentally encroach on a bear’s personal space, which forces the animal to make a hasty decision: fight or flee? You don’t have to get between a sow and her cubs to provoke a charge; you just have to get close enough.

3  A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication on close encounters with bears states that a grizzly can “run 50 yards in three seconds, or up to 40 mph.” Hunters need to be acutely aware that during a surprise encounter with a grizzly, time is of the essence.

4  To bring your rifle into action quickly, it’s best to use the two-hand safe carry. It takes much longer to get off a shot if you sling your rifle over a shoulder. Time yourself. Go out with a friend and tack a paper plate on a tree. See how long it takes to get a shot on target using each of the six proper carries for long guns.

5  Keep a round in the chamber, safety on. If you don’t have a round in the chamber when you startle a grizzly, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to get off a shot, especially with a bolt-action rifle.

6  Firing a warning shot at a charging grizzly or a nearby bear is a bad idea. If your warning doesn’t have the desired effect, you probably won’t have time to chamber another round for a second shot.

7  Speaking of warnings, if you’re having a standoff with a nearby grizzly, don’t expect the bear to growl, raise its hackles, or somehow warn you before charging. Sometimes bears show signs of stress and anxiety, sometimes they don’t. They just charge.

8  If you’re dangerously close to a grizzly, ready your weapon. That sounds obvious, but there have been cases when a hunter spotted a grizzly 35 yards away and failed to shoulder his weapon. Then the bear charged and the hunter only had time for a wild shot.

9  How close is too close? The U.S. Geological Survey trains employees to shoot when a grizzly within 50 feet shows “aggressive traits.” If a grizzly that’s aware of you is facing you—frontal orientation—that’s the most aggressive posture for a bear. Shoot. Even if the bear is stationary, shoot.

10  When facing a charging grizzly, never hold fire based on the assumption the bear might be bluffing. Some people claim you can tell when a grizzly is making a bluff charge because its head and ears will be up. Could be, but it only takes the bear a nanosecond to lower its head, flatten its ears, and knock you on your butt.

11 If you stand your ground, a charging grizzly might stop short of making contact because your body language tells the bear, “I’m ready to defend myself. Touch me, and it will cost you.” So when should you shoot? Some people expect hunters to wait until the last second so a grizzly doesn’t die “needlessly.” Those people aren’t the ones facing the bear. If a grizzly charges you, shoot when the bear is at a distance of 100 feet or less. That’s the distance recommended by renowned biologist Stephen Hererro in “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.” Even a zealous federal prosecutor eager to convict a hunter for illegally taking a threatened species would have a tough time convincing people the hunter didn’t give the bear a fair chance.

A Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks brochure on “How to hunt safely in grizzly country” says you should attempt to knock down a charging grizzly by “hitting major bones in the front shoulders.” Things often happen so fast that all a hunter can really do is point and shoot at the “center of mass.”

12 What about bear spray? In a September 29, 2011 article titled “Spray... then pray,” Center For Wildlife Information director Chuck Bartlebaugh told the Coeur d’Alene Press, a can of bear spray “must be held with two hands so it doesn’t tilt upwards.”

That rules out bear spray for a hunter carrying a rifle when a grizzly charges him or her. Even when a rifle is slung over one shoulder, a hunter is supposed to keep a hand on the sling to prevent the rifle from slipping off the shoulder.

Bear spray advocates unfamiliar with firearms claim hunters could fire bear spray one-handed from a hip-holster or chest harness. That’s not a stunt a hunter should attempt while facing a charging grizzly. A right-handed hunter using the shoulder carry for his rifle would have to operate bear spray left-handed. Hunters using the cradle carry or the two-hand safe carry would have to let go of their rifle with one hand and try to operate bear spray with their free hand. Forget the juggling act. Hunters should follow their instincts—point their rifle at the charging grizzly and shoot.

Wildlife officials stress that bear attacks are rare, which is true. But it’s best to be prepared.

(Click here for the other side of the debate)

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (12 posted)

Elk Hunting 12/29/2012 16:16:23
I can personally tell you how important it is to carry bear spray. I was elk hunting in Montana back in 2005 and one night was woken up by * large brown bear tearing apart my camp site. Let's just say he didn't want to stick around after * direct face shot!
Dave Smith 10/25/2012 10:27:39
In the Sept./Oct. 2012 issue of Sports Afield, BYU professor Tom Smith says, "If I'm actually out hunting and I have * gun in my hands and suddenly * bear comes at me--do you think I'm going to lay the gun down and pick up bear spray? Are you out of your mind?"

Smith is the author of research on the Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska (2008) and Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska (2012).

Smith also says the bear spray versus guns argument is "ridiculous." He believes "both guns and bear spray have their place."
Lance Morlock 06/19/2012 13:53:18
Hear is * bit to consider about bear spray many don't consider. I know from personal experience. bear spray can be just as effective on you as it can be on * bear. If the wind is not blowing in your favor, You will find yourself, and anyone around you blind, burning, and gaging. And then you can worry about being eaten alive on top of that. Was with * group of guys who were testing out some spray. * very good lesson was learned. When I hunt in the Tetons I carry bear spray but always consider it * backup tool to use if situation permits. Rifle or pistol first, bearspray if conditions are sufficiant.
Chuck Atkins 05/04/2012 07:15:07
I never trust guys that speak with absolute certainty! There is plenty of empirical evidence that bear spray works so when you say it's all * big government cabal I just gotta laugh!
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Mrfixit 11/23/2011 03:25:29
While you guys are spraying pepper spray and really pissing off an already angry bear I will take the chance to run, but will be ready to shoot if you are not enough of a distraction to keep it occupied. I will come back later and look for a greasy pile of bear dung that smells like hot and spicy mexican food to give you * proper burial.
Daniel Montclair 11/22/2011 17:04:38
There is an over-whelming fact relevant to this debate, a reality that simply cannot be over-looked, which is this: Bear spray cannot actually stop a determined bear; a well-placed bullet can. It may be true that anyone who is not proficient in the use of firearms will stand a better chance of survival when attacked by using bear spray than using a gun for the simple reason that they will probably miss their target if using the firearm. But if the bear is really angry and really determined to kill you it will plow right through that noxious mist in the air left by bear spray and there will be nothing between you and the bear's fury. I have read various quotes of effectiveness for bear spray, from 85% effective to 96% effective....whatever. But what we do know is that a well-placed high caliber bullet will be 100% effective in stopping the bear because the bear will be dead. The conclusion appears obvious. For anyone who is cool-headed and proficient witha firearm it makes more sense to trust your life to the bullet than to the bear spray. I read something once that I consider educational. It said, "When in bear country you should carry pepper spray and attach little jingling bells to your clothing. It is also important to know the difference between black bear scat and grizzly scat. Black bear scat will contain lots of berry seeds and tufts of fur from squirrels and rabbits. Grizzly scat will contain lots of little jingling bells and smell like pepper spray." You get the picture?
Chris 11/19/2011 11:51:03
Wow. What a bunch of bad advice. It's well established that pepper spray can deter an aggressive bear and should be the FIRST option for hunters. All hunters in grizzly bear habitat should carry pepper spray. It's not a new age, tree-hugger thing; it's the practical matter of what WORKS BEST and can SAVE YOUR LIFE (never mind the bear's). a bear has an exceptionally sensitive nose and the spray can instantly cause loss of smell, choking, difficulty breathing -- studies say spray works on charging bears 90-96% of the time. Those are a lot better odds than if you are shooting at a charging bear and hoping to drop it by hitting a vital area with a slug not much bigger around than a pea. I'd much rather face a bear with a can of pepper spray than a gun (and I have encountered grizzlies a couple times on foot in the back country, though thankfully have not needed to use spray). Here's an article from Sports Afield with more current and accurate advice:
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Wm Bova 11/16/2011 15:58:00
Nonsense, just get the spray, have it readily accessible, and know how to use it. For the average hunter/shooter you should always shoot from a rest to insure proper bullet placement on an elk, deer or moose. No need to have a weapon chambered until the opportunity presents itself. Shoulder or sling carry an unchambered rifle for safety.

This hunting season a gun as the answer to a grizzly caused the death of a hunter when his partner shot him while trying to kill the griz. Two other hunting companions were lucky enough to kill a wounded grizzly before it killed their partner. Both of these examples could have very easily ended like the first. Last week a hunter got off a lucky shot to the shoulder at the last second and sent the sow into hyrostatic shock while he backpeddled away from danger. The bear got up and proceded to run 75 yds towards her cubs before dying. She could have very easily mauled or killed him. In Sept a hunter was severly mauled after shooting a charging griz with a 30-06. The author suggests using a stout bullet on a grizzly. I will assume he means hard cast flat point. Yes, that is a round that will break bone and eventually kill the bear. Unless you get a strike to the head, it is very possible a griz amped up on adrenaline will make it's way to you.

He doesn't mention bow hunters and muzzleloaders, but I'm sure most of you know your odds for taking down a griz. Some will elect to carry a high powered hand gun as a backup, but do you really want to take a chance it will do the job.

Get the spray
Tom Higgs 11/15/2011 17:32:39
I guide for brown bear on the Alaska Peninsula and I have been charged several times.The above rules are right on except for the 100 ft rule.As a guide I have to wait a little longer maybe like 60ft depending on conditions but for the average joe 100ft is good.Number 8 is the most important on the list,expect every close bear to charge that way you won't waste valuable time being surprised and getting ready.Bear spray is the biggest hoax forced on us there ever was ,IT DOES NOT WORK.It was promoted by the manufacturers and the BS was swallowed up by government and non hunters who push it even though they have never tried it in real life.I could go on forever but it sure is refreshing to see these rules in print they are the truth.
Chuck Atkins 05/04/2012 07:30:20
This from * Denali ranger;

When hiking armed as * wildlife tech, one person will have * shotgun loaded with "aversive rounds" such as rubber slugs and beanbags that can be used to non-lethally deter * bear if it becomes necessary. Another member of the team will carry lethal rounds as * last resort back-up. All members would be carrying pepper spray, which is nearly 100% effective is used appropriately under the right conditions. Education and training will keep visitors safer than any firearm ever could in bear habitat. Keep in mind that it is still illegal to discharge * firearm in national parks even if you can carry one.

So much for know it all's saying bear spray doesn't work!
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Rick Herzog 11/15/2011 16:02:30
I've been charged when the wind was blowing hard from the side. I raised the gun and had two thoughts, "I don't want to have to shoot this bear and, I'm glad I'm not using bear spray". Luckily, it was a bluff charge and I was able to back away. I will NEVER trust my life to bear spray.
David Rowell 11/14/2011 09:34:55
"...a can of bear spray “must be held with two hands so it doesn’t tilt upwards.”" No it doesn't! Nonsense! Just aim a little low, since the bear's head will be low anyway. Regardless, it doesn't have to be accurately "aimed" like a gun. It comes out in a spray and creates a fog. The odds are against self-protection with a gun against a bear. The odds improve with spray: ****://www.elk-hunting-tips.net/bear-spray.html
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Author info

Dave Smith is the author of “Don’t Get Eaten” and “Backcountry Bear Basics.” He worked as a fire lookout in Plains, Mont.

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