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Does Bear Spray Work?

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

Question: I’m gonna be fishing in the backcountry next month, and the recent Yellowstone bear attack got me thinking. I’d rather not carry a gun, but does bear spray actually work?

via email

Bear Sprayphoto by Alaskan Dude

Answer: Yes, bear spray works, but bear-attack authority Dr. Stephen Herrero says, “Don’t bet your life on it.” Which means don’t think all you need to do is strap on a canister of Bear Mace and you’re good to go. Before you start thinking of what to do if you have an uncomfortable bear encounter, learn the best ways to avoid the situation in the first place. Study the best ways to carry and store food, how to recognize recent bear activity, how to make enough noise to warn bears of your presence, and how to best avoid those areas where you might surprise a bear. There’s plenty of info out there to help you hike, camp, and fish safely in bear country.

That said, sometimes a dangerous encounter is unavoidable, and you need to be prepared. As far as the gun-vs.-spray debate goes, you might be surprised to learn that a 2008 paper by Herrero and three other researchers found that bear spray ismore effective than a gun in stopping a bear attack. First of all, are you sure you could hit a bear that’s charging you? I doubt I could. And even if you do hit it, researchers found that it takes an average of four rounds to bring down a brown bear. And a wounded bear is an angry bear.

I have never carried bear spray, but I worked around bears a lot in Alaska and Yellowstone. When I guided in Alaska, I always carried a 12-gauge shotgun. (My two warning shots were 00 buck, followed by three slugs. I wasn’t taking any chances.) But to be honest, I’m not sure how well I could have performed against a real charging brownie. Luckily, I never had a really threatening encounter, and never even had to take the gun off my shoulder. If I had to do it again, I’d carry bear spray, as well as Ol’ Bessy.

Bear spray—which contains concentrated capsaicinoids, the stuff that makes hot peppers hot—is easier to deploy accurately and doesn’t require you to bring the bear down. My friend Don Thomas, a writer and angler, told me about his one experience with pepper spray in Alaska:

An aggressive young brown bear had closed to within 10-12 feet despite all the usual yelling, and a friend had a rifle trained on its snout. As soon as the spray hit the bear, the animal turned inside out and galloped off down the river at Mach 3. The spray saved the bear’s life and prevented an ugly incident none of us wanted.

That’s pretty compelling evidence, right there. But I put the question out to some other guides and anglers who frequent Yellowstone bear country, and here’s what they said:

Dave Kumlien, Bozeman based outfitter: I carry it when I fish Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park.  I probably should carry it in other places I fish in the Park, but I don’t. It is the best thing there is as a last line of defense for a bear attack.  Better off to use bear spray than to carry a firearm and try to kill the bear. I’ve never had to use spray and have never been close to having to use it. I have seen a few bears while fishing in YNP and once while fishing the Gallatin at Big Sky but have never been threatened.

Paul Schullery, Yellowstone historian: “Sure, I carry it. Are there actually still people who don’t think bear spray helps?”

Brian Grossenbacher, Bozeman based guide and photographer: “I carry it when I remember it, which is usually not the case. I have never had to use it, but twice I have been within 50 feet of grizzly bears in the backcountry and been without bear spray and seriously wished I had a better memory. Both times the bears have surveyed the scene and then ambled off without incident.”

Bryan Gregson, Island Park-based guide and photographer: “I’ve traveled in and around bear country the majority of my life. In my early teens, I worked deep in the Bitterroot wilderness and surrounding areas when the troubled bears were being released from the park. A few years go I had my first encounter, with a black bear mom and cubs. I was shooting pictures, when we spooked each other in the thick woods. As luck would have it, I somehow found myself between her and the youngsters. She didn’t hesitate to stand-up on her hind legs, and let out a warning yell. I snapped what could have been the last few images I ever took before slowly backing up into the trees. She gathered the family and hightailed it out of there. Needless to say, it was nothing short of an exhilarating scary experience, I almost peed my pants, and I am glad I wasn’t a threat to her or I’d probably have gotten eaten. I did not have bear spray.

Nowadays living in and around Island Park, I’ve seen many signs of bears and have seen two grizzlies off in the distance the past month. I’ve also had the pleasure to talk to a few local black bear hunters and saw their game-camera images of huge grizzlies, and a lot of them. These crazy guys carry both firepower and bear spray. I do carry bear spray now;  it’s too easy not too.”

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at OrvisNews.com.
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  • Bobfeds1

    read in Alaska Magazine that a tazer shot ( one that shoots the darts) will stop a bear its’ tracks. anyone have experience? 

  • DAN the MAN

    I think that bear spray works very well….for the bear. Like we humans, bears like to spice up their diet with some pepper now and then.  To them it makes us humans taste like Mexican food.

  • DAN the MAN

    Bottom line is that the jury is still out on all the possible defenses against bear attack.  Firearms are very effective and the only absolute form of defense only if you are very proficient in firearms usage.  If not, then you likely either miss your shot or anger the bear with a superficial wound, thereby making the situation worse.  Bear spray probably works most of the time but there’s no guarantee that an angry bear won’t run right through it and if they’re coming at you doing 40 mph, look out!  As for dogs, if you have the right kind of dogs—gutsy, tough, don’t-back-down dogs—and you have two or more of them with you they will probably chase away any bear.  Bears tend to feel helpless when faced with multiple canines due to the dogs’ superior agility. Whatever method of defense you choose just be sure you’re in a mindset of instant response when faced with an angry bruin because if it charges you will only have a few seconds to act.

  • Djflug

    Fishing the Big Horn Mountains of Wyomong, where bear are rare I’m told, I ran into two parties carrying bear spray to use in case of moose charges. One was a local fisherman. Both stated they had experienced cows with calves charging ,before they carried spray, but stopping short of them.

  • Deb

    I always carry bear spray in bear country…that being said, it only works if it’s readily available.  I had it on me 24/7 in grizzly country and in easy reach.  I still made lots of noise while traveling on foot and  avoid(ed) areas when I saw bear sign.  But like Dr. Stephen Herrero said, “Don’t bet your life on it.”  I was a victim of a rare and tragic predatory attack at  2 AM while sleeping in my tent just outside of Yellowstone. (Soda Butte)   Although I had bear spray with me, I had rolled over in my sleep and was left in a position, while in the teeth of the bear,  where I could not access it.   I followed strict bear avoidance practices with regards to my camp site as well as during my every day activities, but this too is no guarantee.     I will also admit that I did make one major mistake. I was aware that there was recent bear activity in the area, days prior …and I did not pack up and leave.    The possibility of a  “predatory” encounter was far in the back of my mind because they are so rare. 

       If I had it to do all over again, I would NEVER sleep in a tent in brown / grizzly country without an electric fence. 

    Castaway… Flying is not an excuse.  You can buy bear spray at most local outfitters. 

    • http://www.midcurrent.com Marshall Cutchin

      Deb, thanks for taking the time to share your personal experiences.  They are more relevant than all of the conjectures combined.  

  • Zormsk

    No experience with grizz, though I have hiked in Yellowstone. Lotsa experience with black bears as a bowhunter/hiker in PA. One tried to climb the tree I was in. I spit on his head and he ran off. Other times I’ve gotten way too close to them by accident and some soft talking and slow arm waving has been enough to send them on their way. 

    Most threatened I ever felt was a large bear that approached me and a friend as we ate supper on a backpacking trip. Came strolling in head down, like a mad dog. We tossed a stick when he got within ten feet of us. Stick landed in front of his nose, he sniffed it, looked at us and walked away despite the smell of our ‘tuna ala neptune’ suppers. That same trip gave us the scariest moment: snuggled in our sleeping bags under the stars, we were awakened by spotlights from poachers on a grown-over, dirt road we were unaware of. They opened up on some deer grazing near us. Ever try to dig a foxhole by squirming like a worm in a down bag? Not very effective. Luckily, neither we nor the deer suffered any harm.