Does Bear Spray Work?

June 21, 2017 By: Philip Monahan

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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?

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Bear Spray

photo 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.”