MISSOULA, Mont. - One summer night in 1977, Bill Pounds awoke to chewing and grunting sounds outside his tent. The disabled Vietnam vet had set up camp near Hungry Horse Reservoir in northwestern Montana. "Coming from Arkansas, I thought it was a wild hog," he says. Then he remembered that there are no wild hogs in Montana. The noises were coming from a bear.
As the moments dragged on, the bear put its
nose against the tent fabric and inhaled. Even in the dark, Pounds
could distinguish two large nostrils. "My hair was standing
straight up," he says. "I had a little pistol with me, but I had a
feeling of total inadequacy and vulnerability."
Pounds never did see the bear, but the next
morning he realized he had pitched his tent in the middle of a
huckleberry patch, a favorite food for bears.
incident set Pounds thinking about how to protect his family from
bears. "I retooled a shotgun and took it to my wife. But she said
she didn't want to carry it. Plus, the kids were too small," he
says. "I tried to think of something else the whole family could
Then, he remembered an experience he'd
had years before in a small fishing village in Mexico. A group of
mischievous locals were trying to talk him into eating a small
green pepper. "I got suspicious, so I just scratched the skin of
the pepper with my teeth. That alone was enough to take my breath
away," he says. "After I remembered that, I immediately tried to
figure out how to get pepper in an aerosol can."
A Florida company agreed to make five cans of
pepper spray for Pounds at $100 a can, and bear spray was born. In
1986, Pounds put his invention, "Counter Assault," on the market,
bolstered by studies from University of Montana bear biologist
Chuck Jonkel showing that pepper spray could turn around a charging
For more than a decade, the number of
backcountry users carrying pepper spray steadily grew. Tests showed
that it is more efficient than firearms in turning back charging
bears - an 85 percent success rate compared to 50 percent for guns,
according to Canadian researchers. Pepper spray also protects
bears. "When a grizzly bear mauls a human or loses its innate fear
of people, it is often destroyed (by wildlife managers)," says
Chuck Bartlebaugh with the Missoula-based Center for Wildlife
Information. "If pepper spray turns back the bear, it lives."
But recent studies have cast some doubts on
whether pepper spray is as perfect a solution as people once
Questions about bear spray arose last
summer, when Tom Smith, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S.
Geological Survey in Alaska, announced that bears seemed to be
attracted to pepper spray residue. Smith watched bears rolling in
the stuff after he had sprayed it on the
Confusion arose when some journalists
reported that Smith thought it was dangerous to use the product.
Actually, Smith remains a staunch advocate of pepper spray. "It's
saved my bacon a number of times," he says. But he warns that the
product should only be used on an attacking bear and not sprayed
around a campsite as a repellent.
observations prompted ChemArmor, a Missoula-based firm, to begin
warning consumers that oil-based pepper sprays draw bears into
campsites. This spring, ChemArmor circulated literature describing
a number of encounters allegedly stimulated by spray
The literature was also a plug for
ChemArmor's new spray formula that substitutes a synthetic chemical
for the red pepper extract found in most other sprays. "We don't
need the product to taste like chili," says company spokeswoman
Kate Dwire. "If that residue attracts bears, then there will be
potential human/bear encounters."
But some bear
experts are crying foul. "It's deceptive when one company says,
"Our bear spray doesn't attract bears' - meaning that everyone
else's does," says Chuck Jonkel, director of the Great Bear
Foundation. "Two-thirds of a bear's world is keyed to odors. Take
anything out there that the bears haven't smelled before and
Confusion for the consumer doesn't
stop with this controversy. A few years after inventor Bill Pounds
first marketed Counter Assault, copycat products began appearing on
the market. Since the industry was unregulated at the time, some
substandard sprays made it to store shelves.
fall in Wyoming, a grizzly bear charged a hunter who then doused
the animal with bear spray. But the grizzly didn't stop. Another
hunter shot the bear as it bit his friend.
Fitzwilliams, then spokesman for the Bridger-Teton National Forest,
who inspected the shooting, was taken aback when he read the label
on the spent bear spray can and discovered that it was intended to
stop humans, not bears. "It read something like, "After spraying
the attacker, call 911 immediately," "''''he
There has been some progress in regulating
bear spray. In 1993, Environmental Protection Agency officials
warned manufacturers not to label their products as specifically
for use on animals while the agency developed a system for
certifying the spray, since technically, it is a pesticide.
Companies were slow to register, so last November the EPA
threatened to pull spray cans from stores if manufacturers didn't
apply for certification immediately.
Counter Assault became the first EPA-registered bear spray. As of
mid-April, the agency had registered four
Still, some experts say the EPA hasn't
gone far enough. "They aren't having the products individually
tested by third-party observers," Bartlebaugh says. "It looks as if
they'll register anything. It would help if they would list all the
contents on the label."
But EPA spokesman Dan
Peacock says that the certified products which carry labels
specifying they contain 1 percent to 2 percent capsaicin and
related capsaicinoids, as well as spray distance and volume, are
considered adequate to deter an aggressive bear. "We could have had
a bad situation if things had continued to drift, with people
making it in their bathtubs," he says.
The author recently
put his bear spray to use near his home in Hot Springs,
You can contact
* Chuck Bartlebaugh, Center for Wildlife
Information at 406/523-7756;
* Kate Dwire,
ChemArmor at 406/549-7963;
* Chuck Jonkel, Great
Bear Foundation at 406/829-9378;
* Dan Peacock,
EPA at 703/305-5407.