Teton County Attorney Steve Weichman is working on a bill that would require permitted backcountry users in grizzly country to carry bear spray.
Weichman announced the bill at a meeting of the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee on Thursday at Snow King Resort in Jackson. Weichman is still working on the bill and has not yet found a sponsor for the legislation.
The bill would require all backcountry users who obtain permits to carry bear spray in “grizzly country.” In the Yellowstone Ecosystem, that would include overnight backcountry users in national parks, anglers and hunters who possess licenses, outfitters and possibly even people cutting down Christmas trees.
“We probably need bear spray legislation,” Weichman said from his office in Jackson on Tuesday. “That reality came home to roost when I learned how many grizzly bears are living in places that were traditionally the exclusive domain of black bears.”
Not only are human-grizzly conflicts increasing at a “nearly exponential rate,” Weichman said, but also human deaths caused by grizzly bears. While only 44 people have died from grizzly attacks since the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of those attacks have occurred in the last 20 years.
Weichman also cited two studies that show bear spray is more effective than bullets at preventing injury to humans during a bear attack. One such study, conducted by Brigham Young University professor Thomas Smith, showed that bear spray stopped aggressive bruins 92 percent of the time, while firearms worked 67 percent of the time.
Weichman said there is a “public trust” precedent for requiring bear spray.
“The public trust is more of a privilege than a right,” he said. “It is something that can be licensed and permitted.”
A “great public trust in Wyoming is our wildlife,” he said. “Your right to use that trust is also a privilege, and you may have to abide by certain conditions like a hunting licenses or a fishing licenses or back country camping permits.”
Weichman said he specifically chose not to target hunters for the bill.
“It’s going to offend some people,” he said. “But, I’m not trying to offend anybody. This bill is coming whether it has my fingerprints on it or not.
“It needs to be a grassroots bill,” Weichman continued. “This should be a common-ground issue. It shouldn’t be used to draw battle lines between pro-grizzly and anti-grizzly, and pro-hunting and anti-hunting. The grizzly is here, the conflicts are rising, and this is a common-sense notion much like seat belts, which were not warmly embraced either.”
A law requiring bear spray could make sense said Louise Lasley, public lands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
“I don’t believe that anyone can argue the effectiveness of bear spray in repelling bear charges and protecting human life,” she said. “For agencies and organizations across the state to [require] all backcountry users have bear spray in their possession, while seemingly cumbersome, will probably go a long way in protecting those backcountry users and the bears.”
Bob Wharff, executive director of the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said he wasn’t sure whether his group would support a bill requiring bear spray. Bear spray isn’t the answer for every bear encounter, especially for hunters, he said. Industry should work on a bear spray delivery system that doesn’t require hunters to drop their guns.
“There are some instances, when you’re not surprising the animal, when you may have time to get your pepper spray out,” he said. “[But] when you stumble into a bear, the minimal time you have to respond is not adequate to go through the though process [of getting your bear spray out]. You’re talking milliseconds. It’s illogical that you’re going to set your gun down and get your pepper spray.”
In fact, many bear spray canisters are sold with holsters that allow the spray to be discharged from the hip without the can even being drawn.
“I encourage people to learn how to behave in bear country,” Wharff continued. “That’s more important than anything else.”
At the Yellowstone Grizzly Coordinating Committee, Wyoming Game and Fish Bear Management Supervisor Mark Bruscino said the agency is trying hard to persuade hunters to carry bear spray. The efforts include public service announcements and bear spray demonstrations.
“There’s not a lot of confidence that it works in the hunting public,” he said.
Bruscino echoed Wharff’s remarks that sometimes dropping a gun in favor of bear spray isn’t practical.
“Bear spray isn’t the answer to all these instances,” he said. “These instances happen quickly. It should be part of the hunter’s tool belt.”
A bear-spray requirement in Grand Teton National Park is being accepted by hunters, said Steve Cain, park senior wildlife biologist. Bear spray required during the park’s annual elk reduction program.
“We’ve had very little push back, and we get very high compliance,” he said.
At the grizzly meeting, Craig Kenworthy, conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said he’d like to see a pilot project that would require mandatory use of bear spray in some of the “high-conflict, high-bear-density” areas around the ecosystem.
“It’s got to be people from the hunting community that say this is the right way to go,” he said.
In 2008, officials confirmed the deaths of 10 female grizzly bears, five of which were killed by hunters. Those five females had six cubs of the year and two yearlings.
Researchers from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team think the actual number of dead female grizzlies is much larger. Including the estimated number of nonreported bear deaths, researchers think 79 grizzly bears died last year, 30 of which were independent females.
In September, a 3-year-old female bear dubbed 615 was shot and killed by a hunter near Ditch Creek north of Jackson. DNA tests later showed that 615 was one of three offspring belonging to 399, a grizzly that gained fame when she raised her cubs by the roadside near Jackson Lake Lodge from 2006 to 2008.
Authorities say Teton Village resident Stephen Westmoreland, 40, shot 615, from 40 yards away while he was helping carry a deer his hunting partner shot in Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Weichman later charged Westmoreland with taking a grizzly bear without a license, based on an investigation by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. It is legal to shoot a grizzly only in self-defense.
The incident occurred days before a federal judge in Montana put the bears back under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.