Bear Pepper Spray Ad in Idaho Falls Post RegisterIt appears that the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have jumped onto a bandwagon suggesting that everyone, including hunters, carry and use bear pepper spray, for protection while in the woods. As a matter of fact, Idaho’s fish and game departments, along with the support of the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, are promoting it. To the right is an ad that appeared in the Idaho Falls Post Register a few days ago.

What first raises an eyebrow for me is the fact that an ad appeared in an Idaho newspaper that carries the logo of three institutions – The Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. While many would concur that it would be commonplace to find the SC and NRDC working hand in hand, one has to question when an agency whose main function is to provide hunting, fishing and trapping opportunities to licensed Idaho residents, would be teaming up with known environmental groups much opposed to those activities.

Let’s set the record straight before we proceed any further. For people hiking and journeying into the woods in grizzly bear country, it seems that the most likely alternative you have for protection against grizzly bear attacks is bear pepper spray. There seems to be, at least from my perspective, some discrepancies in the truthfulness of the effectiveness of the spray, which I will explain and whether or not the advice to use the spray over the use of a gun, particularly for hunters, should be followed as is being recommended.

I will admit that I can be a stickler for details and along with that I think it is responsible for all parties to be completely forthcoming when advising the public on issues such as bear safety.

If you want to take the time, you can get quite a bit of information about the use of bear spray but there is one slight problem when conducting any research. I’ll help you out with providing links where I found most of my information.

One problem that shows up right away is that those agencies recommending the use of bear spray before hunters use their guns for protection, is they are all getting their information from one source, that source being the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. This holds true as well for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Note: I had difficulties in reaching their website at the link provided through a Google search or from the Forestry Service website.)

What appears to be the only real testing is that done by Dr. Stephen Herrero and Andrew Higgins of the University of Calgary, Alberta. While their testing is interesting fodder for the bear spray industry, the results cannot be used as a definitive claim that bear pepper spray works best for all occasions all the time and herein lies one of the problems I am having with taking at face value that I should opt for the use of spray over my gun in my hands while hunting.

The U.S. Geological Survey published the results of a grizzly bear/pepper spray report completed by Tom S. Smith, Ph.D for the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. Smith makes the following statement in regards to the spray testing done by Herrero and Higgins.

Although not under tightly controlled conditions nor observed by scientists, these results strongly suggest that red pepper spray deterrents work well. It would have been interesting to see if any difference existed between the various brands of spray but the data set is far too small.

As I said, this is interesting stuff but should we be claiming this as the gospel and telling people that bear pepper spray is going to save them before a gun will?

In a fact sheet put out by the USFWS called, “Bear Spray Vs. Bullets“(pdf), the following statement is made regarding statistics about injuries associated with grizzly bear attacks on those using spray versus those using a gun.

The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun. 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% 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.

Can of Bear SprayA closer look at the results could lead someone to render different results because they omitted results from within the same survey. Those conducting the study admit that the data is limited and that the number of incidences for unarmed people with pepper spray is considerably less than reported attacks on hunters. Also, if you examine the graph provided, I could say that if you want to increase your chances of living to tell your family and friends about your attack by a grizzly, ditch the pepper spray and carry a gun. 56% of grizzly attacks on those without a gun resulted in death while only 44% of those who were armed with a gun died.

Many will think I’m a bit paranoid but within the text of this report by Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey, we hunters can read this statement.

Not only are firearms in of themselves a hazard to carry but consider for a moment that a bear has charged and you’ve killed it.

This further goes on to explain what happens in Alaska when you opt to kill an attacking grizzly bear out of self preservation. I fail to accept the statement that a firearm is a hazard to carry for a hunter. Think about it a moment. This report that these state agencies are using to tell hunters to opt for bear spray over guns was clearly written for those venturing into the woods for something other than a big game hunting trip.

While not questioning the study, one has to better understand the conditions under which the study was conducted to determine how that effectively relates to the elk hunter in the wilderness of Montana. I don’t have the answers but I sure have a lot of questions.

Isn’t it a safe bet that bears within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park will react differently to people than to those some distance outside the park hunting elk in remote areas? It seems that Herrero and Higgins alluded to this somewhat when they commented that:

Regarding brown/grizzly bear incidents associated with curiosity of searching for human foods and garbage, in 100% (20/20) of the cases the spray had the effect of stopping the behavior that the bear was displaying immediately prior to being sprayed. The bear left the area in 90% of the cases.”

Here, both researchers are saying that bears searching for human food are more accustomed to humans and I think it would be reasonable to expect the bears to generally act less aggressively toward a human than say a hunter who stumbles onto a grizzly startling it and causing the bear to attack.

Let’s be honest here. No complete studies have been done that I can find, that would allow me to put my signature on a statement warning hunters to drop their rifles and pick up their bear spray if being attacked. There are just too many variables and unanswered questions.

Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks website has information about who should use bear spray and how to affectively use it. This is good information but just as I have been reluctant to agree with our wildlife experts who continue to repeat the same old mantra time and again, that bears don’t attack people, I will not freely jump on this wagon to tell hunters to drop their guns and aim their spray.

While some of the information put out by agencies about being bear aware is good useful information, it is incomplete and could be construed as misleading. The U.S. Geological Survey’s report states the following about the use of spray under certain windy conditions.

In a number of bear-human encounters (on the low side of things admittedly) people have used bear pepper sprays to deter menacingly curious bears. In such instances it seems entirely possible to maneuver about until you have the wind in your favor.

Shouldn’t this further go on to state that the odds that anyone would have the time or the presence of mind to maneuver themselves around a menacing bear to get upwind, practically slim and none?

What if while being attacked you face a stiff head wind? You spray at the charging bear and get a face full of pepper spray. Then what? Granted we all know that not all conditions are conducive to the use of pepper spray which is one reason I am questioning the blank statement encouraging the use of spray over bullets.

There are other factors to consider. No studies that I have found give any data on what if any effects temperature has on the spray. As I was asked by one reader who e-mailed me,

Has the IGBC tested bear spray in cold weather? My old Ruger 77 will perform whether it’s 55 degrees or 10 degrees, but all bear spray companies note that “cold” affects bear spray performance. How much? What’s the range of a can of bear spray that’s been at 65 degrees for 3 hours Vs the range of a can of bear spray that’s been at 10 degrees for 3 hours? You could keep bear spray warm by carrying it in a chest holster under your jacket, but I doubt if a charging grizzly would call a “time out” so you had time to unzip your jacket and reach for your bear spray.

All excellent questions and there’s more. I’ve never been attacked by a bear of any kind but the stories I have reported about quickly have taught me that when a bear attacks, you have but a split second to react. If I am hunting elk in the reaches of Montana and realize I am being attacked by a grizzly, I don’t think my instincts are going to allow me to put down my gun and reach for my spray. I doubt that I would have enough time to do that if I wanted to.

Don’t get me wrong, if I am going hunting in grizzly country, no matter where it is, I’m taking my rifle, of which I intend to use and strapped to my belt will also be a can of pepper spray.

I have been told that the Sierra Club is providing inert bear spray cans for practice during hunter training classes, etc. This is good as buying pepper spray and practicing how to use it and take aim can get a bit costly. In one article I was reading, it recommended arming every member of your outdoor party with at least one can and recommended two. They also suggested that if you plan to be out for any extended period of time, you take some extra canisters along. With a suggested retail price starting around $35.00 – $40.00 a can, I can see that should I take my wife and 6 grandchildren on a hike, I’m looking at a minimum of $300 just for spray.

Don’t get me wrong, I place a much higher value on my grandchildren and wife than that but I can say that this would definitely be a deterrent to hiking in grizzly country.

I want to clarify my position one more time. I am not against bear pepper spray for use as self-protection against grizzly bear attacks. I’m also not opposed to suggesting that hunters also carry pepper spray for protection in addition to their hunting weapons. What I am opposed to is state agencies doing as it appears Montana and Idaho have done and that’s telling hunters that pepper spray is more affective in preventing injury and saving your life than their gun. Until more reliable data from tests and studies are done, I think it irresponsible for anyone to be making that recommendation.

As all agencies and manufacturers of bear spray tell us, there is no substitute for proper planning and preparedness. When you are going to be out in grizzly bear country, whether hunting or hiking, arm yourself with some industry approved bear spray and learn how to use it. While hunting and carrying a rifle, you will have to decide from the information presented to you which you honestly feel is the best tactic to employ while being attacked.

I can concur that certain circumstances of bear encounters while hunting would better call for the use of spray over bullets – say a menacing bear not in an all out attack. But if I have rifle in both hands stocking game and a bear charges from a few yards away, my faith is going to be in placing a bullet.

Let’s have some better testing under all conditions by completely independent sources before running ads in newspapers warning hunters to drop their weapons and take out their bear spray cans while being attacked by a grizzly bear.

Tom Remington