Bear Spray or Bullets in Grizzly Country by Dave Smith
When an elk hunter in the Yellowstone region gets charged after startling a nearby grizzly, is bear spray a realistic alternative to a firearm? This fall, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) will strongly discourage hunters from using their firearm for self-defense. Hunters will be warned about potential problems of responding to a charging grizzly with a rifle. Hunters won’t be offered advice on how to overcome these problems and use their rifle effectively for self-defense. Instead, the IGBC will launch a massive PR campaign to convince big game hunters to carry bear spray.
The bear spray blitz is the IGBC’s response to high grizzly bear mortality in the Yellowstone region in 2008. Big-game hunters killed 13 grizzlies in self-defense. Bears mauled several hunters. The IGBC formed a grizzly bear mortality task force that recommended the bear spray blitz in an April 15, 2009 “mortality reduction report.” The IGBC is operating on the premise that bear spray will protect hunters, yet spare the bear’s life.
Bear spray is an EPA-regulated product that comes in aerosol cans weighing 7.9 oz and up. It’s commonly carried in a hip-holster that slips onto your belt, or a chest harness that holds the can of spray at about sternum height. The cost is a minimum of $40 with a hip-holster, and $50 with a chest harness.
Research shows that bear spray works, even on charging grizzlies. Biologist Steven Herrero’s 1998 study on bear spray found that it stopped bears over 90% of the time. When BYU professor Tom Smith and Herrero reviewed 72 cases of bear spray use in Alaska for a 2008 study, they found that during close range encounters, 98% of the people were uninjured.
But here’s the catch, virtually all of the people who used bear spray were hikers and other non-hunters. Unlike hunters, hikers aren’t holding a rifle when a grizzly charges them. How can a hunter holding a rifle quickly and safely deploy bear spray carried in a hip holster or chest harness?
A hunter using the two-hand/ready carry would have to let go of his rifle with one hand and reach for bear spray with his free hand. A right-handed hunter using the shoulder carry would hold his rifle in his right hand over his right shoulder. He’d have to carry bear spray on his left hip and try to operate it left-handed, while facing a charging grizzly.
When you start going through all of the what-if scenarios for each of the six common field carries for rifles, an NRA firearms instructor demonstrating how to use bear spray would look like a character in a Marx Brothers skit. There’s the bear, where’s my bear spray? No wonder the IGBC merely tells hunters to “carry bear spray and know how to use it,” rather than providing hunters with real-world advice on how to use bear spray. The IGBC gives hunters, hikers, and bird-watchers the same generic instructions on
“How to use bear pepper spray:
Spray should be carried in a quick, accessible fashion such as in a hip or chest holster.
Remove safety clip.
Aim slightly down and towards the approaching bear. If necessary, adjust for cross wind.
Spray a brief shot when the bear is about 50 feet away.”
The best information about the practicality of bear spray for hunters comes from an informal study done by Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team biologist Chuck Schwartz on hunter-related grizzly bear mortality in Wyoming.
A 2006 Casper Star-Tribune article titled “Lessons from hunter/griz encounters” reported that Schwartz reviewed 24 cases (1992-2004) “when hunters and bears surprised each other in the field and the bears charged.”
The Casper Star-Tribune noted “hunters have guns in their hands, not pepper spray. A quiet hunter can surprise a bear, and the resultant charge gives hunters scant seconds to switch from gun to pepper spray canister.”
“Time and again, hunters said it happened so fast that when they shot, the bear fell right at their feet,” said Schwartz. (February 8, 2006)
Facts be damned, environmental groups insist that hunters can and should use bear spray, not a firearm. According to Man Is Prey (2007), “Several conservation groups, concerned about the needless killing of grizzly bears by hunters who are defending themselves, have petitioned those states surrounding Yellowstone National Park to require hunters to carry bear spray.”
Needless killing? Evidently, the IGBC agrees with environmentalists because the IGBC’s grizzly bear mortality reduction plan includes serious discussions about mandatory bear spray for hunters on federal lands in grizzly country. The IGBC and bear spray advocates are sure to put even more heat on hunters when Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero release a long anticipated study on the use of firearms for protection from bears Alaska.
Preliminary data indicates guns are successful for self-defense about 70% of the time. When the results are published, bear spray advocates will undoubtedly compare the success rate for firearms to the 90% + success rate for bear spray and proclaim, “See, this proves hunters should use bear spray.”
Actually, comparing statistics on bear spray to statistics on firearms merely proves the adage that statistics are meaningless. Even if bear spray outperforms firearms on paper, it’s readily apparent bear spray is not an option for a hunter in the field who’s holding a rifle when a grizzly charges him.
It seems unlikely the IGBC’s 2009 bear spray blitz will significantly reduce grizzly bear mortality. Even if hunters are required to carry bear spray, using it is another matter. What about hunter safety? The IGBC’s failure to provide hunters with the same information on firearms handling that state and federal employees get during bear safety courses guarantees that bears will continue to injure hunters.