If you are going to venture anywhere near bear country, you may be safer carrying a 9 oz. canister of Guard Alaska Bear Repellent or Bear Pepper Mace than you would relying on a gun. But you don’t have to take our word for it.
How about the recommendation of Thomas Smith and Stephen Herrero?
Thomas S. Smith, associate professor of wildlife science at Brigham Young University, “is highly respected among bear biologists, naturalists and educators. His one-on-one experience with bears in the field is an enormous resource to the bear management community,” said director of the Center for Wildlife Information, Chuck Bartlebaugh, who runs “Be Bear Aware” and other wildlife safety campaigns. “This new study is important information that is needed by hunters, hikers or campers to understand the value of bear spray and how it can protect both people and bears.”
Dr. Stephen Herrero is Professor of Environmental Science and Biology at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is recognized throughout the world as a leading authority on bear ecology, behavior, and attacks, writing several books and papers on those topics.
Smith has faithfully carried bear pepper spray while conducted fieldwork among bears for over 16 years but admits he has never had to actually deploy bear spray. Caution and wisdom are the best prevention of bear attacks, and being a bear biologist, you would expect nothing less. “I wish I had more scary stories to share, but I’ve behaved myself.”
Non-experienced, non-bear biologists don’t quite have the luxury of knowing bear behavior inside and out.
Many hikers, campers and other outdoors people have expressed concern, as well as unfounded doubt and criticism over the effectiveness of that little can of pepper spray on a ferocious bear. “Working in the bear safety arena, I even found a lot of resistance to bear spray among professionals,” says Smith. “There was no good, clean data set that demonstrated definitively that it worked, so that’s why we did this research.”
Sensing the need for some answers and reassurance, Smith and colleagues analyzed data from 20 years of bear spray incidents in Alaska, home to 150,000 bears.
From their findings, pepper spray specially designed for bears effectively halted 92% of the cases of an aggressive bear encounter, whether attacking or rummaging for food.
Only 3 individuals were injured by bears out of 175 people associated with the study, with none requiring a trip to the hospital.
“People working or recreating in bear habitat should feel confident they are safe if carrying bear spray,” says Smith.
Smith had some previous research of the effectiveness of guns in similar situations. Only 67% success. It was noted on average it takes four hits to even stop a bear, and the accuracy needed “during the terrifying split seconds of a grizzly charge is extremely difficult”. On top of the physical issues, many national parks have restrictions on bringing guns in the first place.
The research debunks some of the common misconceptions about using bear spray:
- “Bear spray doesn’t work when it’s windy.” Wind was reported to have interfered with spray accuracy in five of the 71 incidents studied, although the spray reached the bear in all cases. A wind meter was used to test the speed of the bear spray as it shot out of the canister and repeatedly averaged 70 miles per hour. Smith also noted that bears and humans can easily see each other in open, windy spaces. The surprise encounters tend to occur in wooded areas in which vegetation blocks wind.
- “The spray will also disable the person using it.” In the 71 incidents documented in the study, only 10 times did a user report minor irritation and two reported near incapacitation.
- “The can might not work.” There were no reports of spray can malfunction among the 71 studied incidents.
It is believed that one of the primary reasons bear spray works is that it gives users a reason to stand their ground. Running is the worst response to an aggressive bear, Smith says, “but it’s hard not to. Just picture the meanest dog in your neighborhood and multiply his size by ten. It’s very hard to keep your feet from running, but bear spray gives you an option. When you stop and plant your feet, that makes them stop.”
This is because even though humans are much smaller than bears, the animals still view us as risky. “Having seen bears with porcupine quills in their faces, I’m sure that most bears learn at an early age that size is not a good indicator of threat,” Smith said. “There’s always this fear of retribution that keeps them in line. They could take any person they wanted. But they don’t know that.”
It was also noted that the hissing sound and sight of the expanding pepper spray cloud are often enough to frighten away the animal. “I have data to show that if you sprayed water, they often would run,” Smith says.
It was also reported that there were 11 incidents where bear spray was applied to objects like tents in attempt to repel curious bears. Do not attempt this, as it actually backfired and attracted bears instead. You should also discard practice spray canisters before entering the woods.
Other findings reported in the paper include:
- On average, the spray was used when the bear was about 12 feet away (Bear spray typically covers 20-30 foot range)
- 35 percent of incidents involved hikers, and 30 percent involved bear management activities
- 60 percent of the incidents occurred between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
- Nearly 70 percent of the incidents involved brown (grizzly) bears and 28 percent involved black bears. The study also reports the first two documented uses of bear spray on polar bears in Alaska.
Besides Smith and Herrero, Terry D. Debruyn of the National Park Service, and James M. Wilder of Minerals Management Service were also involved in this study. The paper also relies on an earlier publication of a decade’s worth of bear spray data by Herrero and Andrew Higgins. The research was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center. Source
So in conclusion, a study reviewing bear incidents in Alaska over a 20-year period, involving 175 people, and found that pepper spray deterred bears (including grizzly bears, black bears and polar bears) in 92% of cases. In 98% of cases, people who used bear spray were uninjured by the bear; in the remaining cases, injuries were minor. In only 7% of cases did wind interfere with accuracy, and in only 3% was the person using the pepper spray incapacitated by the spray. (Report did not state if user error was involved.)
Clearly as we have stated in the past, bear spray is a highly effective defense against aggressive bears. Nothing is 100% effective, but if the possibility of encountering a wild bear presents itself, I’d rather be safer than sorrier.
Obviously, we want to prevent criminal use of bear spray, but we must also bear in mind that this product saves lives and protects people from serious injury in the woods. Or anywhere a bear may wander.
Be Safe, Be Prepared.
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