Last week one of my dogs sniffed out bear scat along my favorite trail in the Moose Creek area of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. The scat was big and purple and full of half-digested berries.
For me, seeing bear scat isn’t all that rare, but it does serve to shock me out of the complacency I sometimes develop after a summer full of outings on the familiar recreation trails near my house.
That’s an especially good wake-up call as Jackson Hole heads into fall. Bears will begin gorging themselves to put on enough fat for the coming winter. And, especially during poor whitebark pine nut years, bears have a tendency to move down closer to the valley floor, and therefore closer to humans, as high-elevation food sources become more scarce.
Fall is also the time of year when hunters take to the woods en masse across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The bison hunt is already underway on the National Elk Refuge, and I recently saw two archers leaving the woods empty-handed but smiling on the Pole Canyon Trail, just over the border in Idaho.
Wildlife managers have warned that for some bears the sound of a rifle shot acts like a dinner bell. They say grizzly bears in particular have a tendency to seek out gut piles and carcasses for an easy meal.
That mix of hunters and hungry bears makes for an increase in human-bear conflicts, and therefore now is a great time for a reminder: Bear spray works better than bullets to stop a bear attack.
A 2008 review of bear encounters found that bear spray works extremely well as a deterrent for bruin attacks: “Of all persons carrying sprays, 98 percent were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters,” said researchers in a Journal of Wildlife Management study.
The researchers looked at 83 bear spray incidents from 1985 to 2006 in Alaska: “All bear-inflicted injuries ... associated with defensive spraying involved brown bears and were relatively minor (i.e., no hospitalization required).”
Compare that with a 2012 study in the same journal by the same authors titled, “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.” Of 269 bear-human incidents involving people carrying firearms, bears injured a human 151 times.
To summarize, people who carried bear spray avoided an injury 98 percent of the time, while people carrying guns avoided injury only 44 percent of the time. (An important caveat here: It’s not clear whether these numbers are comparing apples to apples. In the 2012 study the researchers reference the 2008 study to say bear spray has a 90 percent success rate. Regardless, bear spray works much better.)
Furthermore, people carrying firearms “suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their ﬁrearms or not,” researchers said. In other words, you’re just as likely to avoid a bear injury carrying a Smith and Wesson 44 magnum as you are a Nerf Stormtrooper Deluxe Blaster that shoots harmless foam darts.
Guns don’t work well against bears for several reasons, but two of the most important are (1) in the heat of a grizzly charge, people tend to have terrible aim and (2) bears are big animals. A bullet may not injure the animal enough to stop it in time to prevent an injury.
“Although the shooter may be able to kill an aggressive bear, injuries to the shooter and others also sometimes occur,” researchers said in the 2012 article. “The need for split-second deployment and deadly accuracy makes using ﬁrearms difﬁcult, even for experts.”
These two studies present a convincing argument for carrying bear spray in the backcountry, whether you’re hunting, hiking or riding a mountain bike. Using bear spray over guns to stop a bear encounter is not a question of Second Amendment rights or liberal verses conservative values; it’s a question of what works and what doesn’t.
That said, bear spray is nasty stuff. It’s a weapon and should be treated as such. Canisters can explode in hot cars, expired bear spray isn’t as effective, and people who discharge bear spray sometimes get a whiff of the active ingredients.
Just one final note about bear spray versus guns: In the 2012 study researchers tallied 172 bear deaths when people used guns to defend themselves against a bear attack. When people used bear spray, zero bears died. Bear spray is not only better at protecting humans, it’s better at protecting bears, too.