The Grizzly Truth
Imagine: You’re on a backpacking trip in Alaska, bushwhacking along an overgrown trail, when—hey now!—you’re up close and personal with a 400-pound griz. You, A) turn screaming and bolt past your buddies; B) unshoulder your .30/06 and level it between said griz’s eyes; or C) quick-draw your hip-holstered canister of pepper spray.
If you picked A, you just made the bear’s dinner menu. If you’re leaning toward B, you’re probably a bear-country veteran with a lot of faith in, and probably decent skill with, firearms. If you went with C you may be among the converted who believe a growing body of research suggesting that non-lethal deterrents aren’t just a feel-good alternative for animal-loving liberals, but a field-tested defense strategy backed up by hard data. Such claims aren’t without merit, or controversy. But while everyone from veteran guides to Second Amendment zealots has sounded off against the superiority of spray over guns, a survey of recent studies only reinforces the arguments in favor of pepper spray.
In March 2012, the Journal of Wildlife Management published Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero’s “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.” The paper’s prosaic title didn’t prevent it from grabbing headlines around the country. For the first time, bear researchers had provided compelling statistical evidence that firearms were less effective in protecting individuals against bear attacks than many folks previously believed, including the researchers themselves. Among their conclusions were 1) that “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not,” and 2) that “bear spray [has] a better success rate under a variety of situations ... than firearms.”
The report is already being widely cited by both wilderness-area managers tasked with keeping people who travel in bear country safe and wildlife biologists and others looking to reduce unnecessary bear killings, as well as injuries, or worse, to humans. The analysis drew information from “readily accessible state and federal records, newspaper accounts, books, and anecdotal information that spanned the years 1883 to 2009.” The data set included 444 people, 357 bears (black, brown, and polar), and a total of 269 close encounters. Bear-inflicted injuries occurred in 151 of the incidents, including 17 fatalities, while aggressive bears were repelled (or killed) 84 percent of the time with handguns, and 76 percent of the time with long guns.
“When I was hired by the government in Alaska they asked me to give some advice about how to be safe in bear country,” says Tom Smith, an associate professor of Plant and Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University. “But all the information I could find was either based on no data at all, or just misguided impressions.”
THIS PAST MARCH WASN’T the first time Smith set out to see how hard numbers stacked up against the differing opinions on the often heated guns vs. pepper spray debate. In 2008, he coauthored a similar study looking specifically at the effectiveness of pepper spray in bear encounters in Alaska. The researchers gathered reports from 1985 to 2006 (spray wasn’t used before the mid-'80s), and reviewed 83 close bear encounters involving 156 people. The conclusions were startling: In all of the incidents involving spray, there were only three injuries, and none of them fatal—a 98-percent success rate.
There is wiggle room in the numbers, of course. No bear encounter is identical, and the number of variables, from type of terrain to equipment malfunction, vary significantly from incident to incident. Nonetheless, the evidence remains persuasive. When I called Stephen Herrero, Smith’s co-author on both the 2008 and 2012 studies, and one of the leading bear experts in North America, to ask if the conclusions from the 2008 Alaskan study could be applied to bears in the Lower 48, he said, “The answer is mostly ‘yes.’ The little qualifier is because terrain factors in bear encounters make a big difference. There’s [more] dense bush in Alaska [than in the Lower 48], and that’s where some of the worst bear attacks seem to concentrate.”
The studies have also come under further scrutiny in light of the cluster of attacks last summer. After an unusual spate of deaths in and around Yellowstone, there was speculation in the media that that, due to declining food sources, bears were altering their behavior and increasingly looking at humans as dinner. But Herrero, who also authored a 2011 report that looked at more than 100 years worth of black bear-related human fatalities nationwide, suggests that predatory bears aren’t new. Rather, the rising number of encounters follows a “consistently linear correlation with population growth,” he says, adding, “but that’s correlation, not causation. In other words, one of the main reasons we’re seeing more predatory encounters is that they are simply more people tromping around in bear country. There very well may be other reasons, too. As Herraro stressed to me, the studies aren’t conclusive, and more research is necessary.