On Sunday morning a four-person family started their ascent up Lupine Meadows on their way to Delta Lake. Half the crew was armed with bear spray, which they held at arm’s length, pointed down the trail, ready to fire.
In recent years bear spray has not only become more popular, it’s become a parkwide recommendation in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. But at $50 a pop and and with rare reason to discharge the spray, many visitors don’t believe they got their money’s worth and thus try to take the souvenir capsaicin home.
FedEx staff in Jackson ask people regularly if they’re attempting to ship anything flammable or pressurized, and nearly every day there’s a package of bear spray that fails to make the cut. There are likely several hazardous parcels people fail to report.
A former U.S. Postal Service postmaster in Yellowstone said he received dozens of questions each week about shipping bear spray. Because the U.S. Postal Service uses a fleet of planes as well as trucks, shipping aerosols is prohibited.
The Transportation Security Administration also limits flying with aerosols, and the agency has specifically banned bear spray from both carry-on and checked baggage.
Despite that well-publicized restriction, Jackson Hole Airport (the only airport located in a U.S. national park) still confiscates a steady supply of bear spray. The airport does not tally the number of canisters collected, but it does operate a bear spray kiosk staffed by Teton Backcountry Rentals to try to catch the peppered aerosol before it gets to security screening.
For visitors who want to dispose of their spray legally, it can be deposited at the 3270 S. Adams Canyon Road recycling center.
Yellowstone also allows people to recycle bear spray via its hazardous waste program throughout the park. Visitors who don’t want to shell out $49.95 for a safe hike can rent spray at Canyon Village.
Despite the prevalence of armed tourists on trails, there are only two to four annual cases of documented bear spray deployment in Yellowstone, according to Public Affairs Officer Linda Veress.
In a park with 1 million monthly visitors, those low numbers suggest a couple of phenomena. First, there are likely more instances of deployment that the park never hears about. Second, the number of potentially violent interactions between people and bears remains relatively low. And third, there are thousands of bear spray canisters that visitors hike through the park without ever firing.
Road-trippers can simply drive the deterrent to the next park of bears, but those who fly have limited options.
Some hotels like Jackson’s Inn on the Creek operate bear spray exchange programs, allowing guests to borrow from previous tenants rather than purchase their own. But innkeeper Nate Levinson said most people come with it already, likely lured by its convenient location next to the Clif bars in Albertsons checkout.
Grand Teton doesn’t track data on bear spray deployment, but bear management specialist Justin Schwabedissen said it’s rare and often unnecessary.
“In many of these cases, the use of bear spray was maybe not necessarily the best,” he said. “Maybe there wasn’t a direct threat to human safety at that point. And it was more just the bear using the trail or a bear being in an area and visitors nervous about that.”
He said pepper spray should serve as the last line of defense, rather than as a substitute for preventive measures like hiking in groups, making noise and being alert.
That said, the park continues to promote bear spray for all visitors looking to explore the backcountry. As proof of efficacy it cites a popular 2008 Alaska-based survey that found capsaicin-based sprays to be 92% effective in deterring brown bears.
Bear spray is effective only if those who wield it know how to use it. Most canisters come with instructions, and the parks have also published educational videos and tips on their websites to promote best practices.
A key instruction is to keep the spray readily accessible, not stashed in a pack. Some folks take that quite literally, such as the Delta Lake family with their protection drawn.
There’s some concern that bear spray creates a false sense of security — inexperienced hikers may be less likely to call “Hey bear” if they have chemical bear deterrent in hand.
Meanwhile, grizzly sightings are becoming increasingly common.
“Grizzlies have now recolonized all of Grand Teton National Park and continue to expand into parts of their historic range,” Schwabedissen said. “From a bear management standpoint ... we’re certainly concerned about what that might mean for human-bear conflicts.”