Two headlines recently caught my eye: in eastern Idaho, a hunter after elk with archery gear was mauled by a grizzly bear. His partner turned the attack around with pepper spray, although the bear still inflicted serious injuries. Details here.
Earlier in September, another hunter was mauled in northwestern Montana, by a grizzly he and a companion had mistakenly shot for a black bear then followed into thick brush. The wounded bear tried to kill the hunters right back. But the autopsy contradicted initial news accounts: the hunter was not killed by the bear, per se, but by a gunshot wound from his hunting companion, who fired a volley at the bear trying to rescue his friend. Details here.
Having hunted that same country and same game for decades, and having interviewed scores of bear mauling victims, such stories give pause. But these cases illustrate that, today, a firearm is not necessarily the best choice of defense against an angry bear.
Let me be clear. I’m not judging anything these hunters did in the field. It’s low class to “Monday-morning quarterback” any kind of animal attack. None of us knows exactly what we would do if we found ourselves in these kind of situations.
But we can learn from them.
Hunters have romanticized bear maulings for as long as bears and humans have shared turf. Brad Pitt’s character in Legends of the Fall meets his end in the maw of a bear. Charles M. Russell painted a gruesome, yet somehow cheery, scene of a hunter rescuing another mauling victim in The Price of His Hide.
I grew up on Outdoor Life and Field & Stream magazines stuffed with life-and-death shootouts with grizzly bears. It seemed a prerequisite for any writer published in those mags to brain at least one charging grizzly bear with a fast, perfectly placed bullet, dropping the charging animal within spitting distance.
Anyone being attacked by a bear has a moral and legal right to fight back with whatever weapon is handy. The question is: which one works best?
Chose a gun if you like, but be forewarned: Hell hath no fury like a wounded bear. To have any chance against a speeding, tenacious grizzly bear, one must be a true expert with a very high-power firearm. Anything else is blind luck or pulp fiction.
Pepper spray, like the brand Counter Assault, is not as romantic as a six-shooter, but carries big advantages. Spray is far easier to use, highly effective, less expensive and lighter in weight than a gun. Pepper spray has chalked up a proven track record.
Plus, pepper spray won’t kill your partner. I interviewed one hiker who was mauled in Glacier National Park. He recalled being in the grip of an angry bear while his companion hosed it down with pepper spray. “The smell of that spray was the sweetest thing I ever smelled.”
Pepper spray works, and it doesn’t make matters worse.
Image: Painter Charles M. Russell romanticizes a bear mauling, which is harder to do in real life.
Ben Long is an outdoorsman, conservationist and reformed journalist in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.