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.

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Cory Hatch is a writer whose work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, MSNBC online and Jackson Hole Magazine. Columns expressly represent the views of the author.

(3) comments

Marybeth Devlin

The data show a 98% safe-rate with bear-spray but only a 44% safe-rate with firearms. The contest is not even close -- a person is more than twice as safe using bear-spray. In addition to saving the life of a human and a bear, the bear-spray's aversive conditioning effect would tend to deter the bear-in-question from further human contact, thus saving other persons, who might have neither bear-spray or firearms, from a dangerous encounter. Being responsible and mindful to keep the bear-spray cannister up-to-date at $40 per unit is inexpensive protection. When there is such an effective, non-lethal solution -- one that is superior to the lethal method -- it is ethically imperative to employ that device, especially because it is usually the human that has trespassed in the bear's habitat. Why should an ignorant bear die just because an intelligent person chose to take a risk?

bob culver

Cory,

Your article spells out some of the advantages and disadvantages for both Bear Spray and Firearms for protection against bears.

It should be stressed that there are advantages of both in different circumstances. You cite the effectiveness of the spray and then also the limitations. You mention the potential hazard of the pressurized containers exploding and exposure of humans to the spray - the spray may not kill you but you may wish your were dead if you get a good dose of it.

I like facts which can support a position, unfortunately speculation is a little weak in that respect. You say;
--------------
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.”
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Your generalization of "people" reacting to a bear attack and not being able to shoot well is not necessarily true for many in the firearm carrying population. Most could deploy a sidearm and deliver two or three aimed shots in less than 3 seconds. I don't think the same could be said for the bear spray to be dispensed, contact the bear and stop the attack in that same short time by an untrained user. Firearm carriers usually practice, some practice a LOT. I think that very few who carry bear spray have ever practiced with it.

Firearms and ammo do not expire - Bear Spray has a relatively short expiration date and you state that, "expired bear spray isn’t as effective". A replacement canister can cost $40 or more. That will buy quite a bit of ammo, enough to practice and still have plenty to carry. Ammo NEVER expires.

Bear spray has a limited effective range, less than about 30 feet and is highly affected by wind and weather conditions - your bear target better be down wind.

So, in conclusion, each self defense tool has its advantages and disadvantages, you may even choose to carry BOTH. When my wife is fishing she carries the spray and I am in over watch with the firearms. I just hope she dispenses that spray and the wind carries it AWAY from me, otherwise I may not be able to see well enough to hit my target. Shot placement is critical.

Yes, as you say, "When people used bear spray, zero bears died. Bear spray is not only better at protecting humans, it’s better at protecting bears, too." When confronted by an actual bear attack there is only one life I am concerned about, in that event the Bears life counts for Zero. It is not an issue of save the bears, but save the humans. If you are trying to discourage people from using an effective tool of self defense, think of the moral implications of that prohibition.

Bob Culver - Armed and safe

Maury Jones

Excellent analysis, Bob. Very well said.

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