Bear spray for hunters – a reality check


You’re a big game hunter in the wilds of Wyoming, Montana or Idaho, and a grizzly is headed right for you, just like a freight train. Do you reach for bear spray, or use your rifle? For more than a decade, state and federal agencies have said hunters should use a firearm only if bear spray is unavailable.

In 2011, Idaho’s Fish and Game Department advised hunters, “Several studies have determined that bear spray is more effective at deterring bear attacks than a firearm.” Brian Peck with the Great Bear Foundation offered a different rationale to the Salt Lake Tribune: “Every time a hunter decides to shoot instead of using bear spray, they are making a decision they are going to set back grizzly bear recovery.”

But I believe that a hunter facing a charging grizzly must respond with his rifle. And yes, I know that’s official heresy, but I believe there’s no choice in the matter. You can’t readily compare the efficacy of bear spray and firearms based on existing research, and besides, it’s pointless. Bear spray advocates are mistaken when they assume that a hunter carrying a rifle can somehow easily switch to bear spray.

Here’s the problem, according to Brigham Young University professor Tom Smith. In an interview with Sports Afield, he said, “If I’m actually out hunting and I have a gun in my hands, and suddenly a bear comes at me, do you think I’m going to lay the gun down and pick up bear spray? Are you out of your mind?”

Smith is the primary author of Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska, and Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska. His remark makes it clear that carrying bear spray is one issue, but using it if under attack is a far different matter. The impracticality of hunters using bear spray explains why bear-spray research only provides data on spray use by non-hunters.

Whether a hunter carries his rifle in two hands or one, using bear spray is not a serious option. It’s easy to test this. Hunters should mentally rehearse using bear spray with each of the six field carries for rifles. In some cases, right-handed hunters would need to use bear spray left-handed. In others, a right-handed hunter would need to switch his rifle from right hand to left to free his right hand to use bear spray.

Hunters sometimes sling their rifle over one shoulder, which leaves two hands free for grabbing and using bear spray. But as Sports Afield gun editor David E. Petzel once quipped, “Rifle slings have saved the lives of more critters than PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).”

It takes hunters far too long to bring a slung rifle into action to shoot an elk, let alone use it to stop a charging grizzly -- and it’s not uncommon for grizzlies to charge hunters. In 2011, for example, 31 of 83 people in the Northern Rockies charged by a grizzly were hunters, said Chris Servheen, who coordinates grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In Tom Smith’s bear-spray research, just 10 of 72 bear-spray incidents involved charging bears. Most incidents involved curious or non-aggressive bears. In contrast, his gun study examined bear attacks only. Comparing the two studies is like comparing the injury rate for people picking up apples to the injury rate for people picking up live hand grenades.

So should a hunter fire a warning shot to try to halt a charging grizzly? Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska showed that firing a warning shot seldom scares away a bear. It does sometimes a provoke a bear into charging, however, at which point hunters are liable to jam their rifle trying to chamber another round.

Both firearms and bear spray are excellent tools in the right situation, but asking a hunter who is carrying a rifle to use bear spray against an attacking grizzly is like asking a carpenter to cut a two-by-four in half using a hammer. I believe it is the responsibility of state and federal agencies to tell hunters the truth about how to defend themselves if a grizzly decides to charge.

Dave Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is the author of Don't Get Eaten and Backcountry Bear Basics, and has lived in both Yellowstone National Park and Alaska for more than two decades.

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