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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)

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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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Homepage, Headlines, hunting, hunter safety, grizzly bear, bear attacks

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