As grizzlies emerge from their dens, mothers hopefully with a couple of cubs in tow, there is lots to celebrate. It’s springtime. Like eager schoolchildren, we flock outside to recreate in our favorite ways – hiking, biking, camping, fishing, exploring. Maybe we identify a delicate spring flower or discover a goldmine of morels. Or maybe we park ourselves at an easy vista hoping to catch that first cherished wildlife sighting of the season. Whichever way we choose to get out into the landscape, let’s remember to recreate responsibly. In bear country, this means carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it.
So why the reticence?
Already this year, several grizzlies have been killed or removed from the ecosystem due to unfortunate, surprise encounters with unprepared recreators and hunters. For this slow-growing species still trying to regain a foothold in its native homeland, these kinds of conflicts spell nothing but bad news. And unfortunately, bear attacks, though statistically rare, are sensationalized by the media, leading to heightened levels of fear that negatively impact grizzly conservation efforts. They also lead people to question their own safety when traveling in bear country. But when it comes to the conservation of this keystone species, the questions we ask ourselves cannot only be about the protection of human life. We must also consider the most ethical ways of mitigating human-bear conflict that will assure a positive outcome not only for the people or person involved, but the bear as well.
Bear spray, which first came onto the scene in the 1980s, is the single most effective, non-lethal deterrent on the market, and everyone who travels, lives or recreates in bear country should carry it on their belt. The logic is simple. Bear spray works. And in conflict situations, it keeps both bears and humans safe.
We now have studies to back this up. In 2010 and 2012, researchers with Brigham Young University conducted the first substantive analyses of human-bear conflicts in the United States and considered the efficacy of bear spray and firearms for stopping unwanted encounters. Their findings? Bear spray is more effective at stopping an unwanted encounter (93%) than the use of a firearm (84%).
Importantly, the researchers noted that “when we compared outcomes for people who used their firearms in an aggressive bear encounter to those who had firearms but did not use them, we found no difference in the outcomes, whether the outcome was no injury, injury, or fatality. However, we found a difference in the outcome for the bears with regards to firearm use: 172 bears died when people used their firearms, whereas no bears were killed when firearms were not used,” said the researchers.
Despite this simple and somber reality, some people are still reluctant to carry bear spray.
Pro-firearm hunting advocates like Dave Smith argue that it is neither safe nor practical for hunters to use bear spray because proper spray and carry techniques run counter to best gun safety and carry practices. Smith’s contention: A hunter must choose one kind of deterrent to carry, and when given the choice they are always going to go with a gun.
But bear attacks can happen quickly and preparing to shoot a firearm takes focus and precision. These are skills that, unless deeply ingrained, are unlikely to be instinctually recalled in a moment of abject intensity involving a bounding bruin. Far less precision or accuracy is required to use bear spray beyond directional aim at the height of the animal’s eyes.
Bear spray takes away an animal’s vision and makes it difficult to breathe. Since bears explore the world primarily through their sense of smell, the spray effectively overwhelms their sense membranes, sending the bear into what can best be described as sensory overload and triggering their brain from a fight into a flight response. Though painful, the bear sustains no lasting damage.
In an unwanted encounter or attack situation, this kind of non-lethal deterrence is exactly what we want.
Bears can learn avoidance, we can too
According to Gary L Moses, a bear education specialist, bear spray should always be the first line of defense when traveling in bear country. Moses was a district ranger at Glacier National Park and later Yellowstone for nearly three decades. “Using bear spray for self defense… not only forces bears to retreat, but it also teaches them to avoid humans,” says Moses.
Moses is the not only person who believes that bears can be conditioned and learn avoidance behavior.
Even wildlife managers agree that bear spray is a useful conflict de-escalation tool. Bears learn quickly. “Every bear who has a negative encounter with bear spray learns something. It’s a positive gain for others in bear country.” says Mike Madel, Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear management specialist on the Rocky Mountain Front.
In the end, the likelihood of an unwanted encounter usually comes down to how we conduct ourselves in bear country. Whether hunting, fishing, hiking or camping, the conventional wisdom remains the same: recreate in groups of four or more, avoid areas with poor visibility to minimize the likelihood of a surprise encounter, know the environment you are traveling in, make noise and carry bear spray. Despite the arguments of some pro-firearm advocates, hunters can learn to adopt this final habit, too. For example, wearing a chest holster allows hunters to carry and have easy access not only to their gun, but their bear spray as well.
And the bottom line we must return to at the end of the day: bear spray allows bears to live. Part of co-existing with grizzlies means choosing bear spray over any other kind of deterrent when we head out to recreate. Not only will this reduce mortality rates for a vulnerable and native species, it will help ensure that grizzlies remain an integral and iconic part of our ecosystem.