Go into the mountains in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, or maybe even parts of Washington, and you’re heading into grizzly territory. The keystone species’ return to the Rocky Mountains is an incredible success story, but it also means human-bear conflicts are on the rise. If we’re to successfully live alongside the large predator, we must learn how to navigate those conflicts.
Grizzly bears have certainly been on my mind recently. Last year, my fiancée, Virginia, and I moved to Bozeman, Montana. We spend a ton of time outdoors, which means we now enter grizzly habitat virtually every day. In the exceptionally unlikely event that either of us ever gets attacked, it’s both prudent and responsible to arm ourselves with as many tools and as much training as possible to avoid or deescalate encounters with the animal. I think anyone who lives or recreates in grizzly habitat needs to do the same.
Like most people who enjoy the outdoors, I came into this with some basic knowledge of the grizzly. I knew that their attacks aren’t typically motivated by predation, so unlike a black bear or mountain lion, you’re supposed to play dead if one attacks you. I knew that running away was a bad idea. And I knew that I needed to be careful with food storage and smells while camping. I carried bear spray whenever I went into the mountains and had some basic understanding drawn from YouTube videos of how to use it. I’d also spent a lot of time reading accounts of bear attacks online in an effort to glean some useful information about effective defense techniques. But much of that advice is delivered by people who have no actual experience with bears, sources often conflict, and the entire topic is mired in controversy and macho posturing.
I even solicited the advice of a wildlife biologist who traps and tags grizzlies. He acted out some bear body language for me, but his description of bluff charges versus real ones just added to my confusion. I knew I was going into the woods every day without knowing what to expect if I came across a grizzly and without a plan for what to do if I did. That scared me.
Then I found Tactic, a firearms training school here in Bozeman. A couple years ago, a group of bowhunters approached the school’s founder, retired SEAL Chris Forrest, and asked him to teach them some self-defense techniques for bear country. Forrest identified the utter lack of effective knowledge or training around bear safety and set out to develop a comprehensive program designed to empower normal people with the tools they need to avoid an attack or potentially even survive one. Much more than just a handgun training course, it includes lessons in understanding bear behavior and using both nonlethal and lethal defense options. Crucially, the curriculum is drawn from real-world experience surviving grizzly attacks and includes hands-on time with a real, live grizzly bear. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
I immediately signed up for the two-day course. This is what I learned.
Grizzlies Are Freakin’ Terrifying
The first morning of Tactic’s course is spent in the field, interacting with Adam, an 850-pound bear who was raised in captivity and who you might recognize from pretty much any movie or TV show that has a grizzly in it.
Virginia and I took the course with a few friends. When Troy Hyde, the bear’s trainer, pulled up and unloaded Adam, one friend went straight to their car, got in, and locked the door. None of us laughed. We’ve all been to zoos and watched nature shows, so we think we know what to expect from a bear. None of that prepares you for getting up close with such a large, powerful animal in its native habitat, free of steel bars or electric fences.
Adam has the personality of a confident, aloof dog. Curious about who I was when I first approached him, he shoved his nose in my crotch. When I started feeding him candy to hold his attention for the camera, he kept raking his six-inch-long claws across my chest and legs to demand more. I was pretty much paralyzed by fear.
Struck by the bear’s obvious intelligence, I asked Hyde if Adam was as smart as a dog. “I’ve seen nothing to indicate that these animals aren’t every bit as smart as an ape,” he said.
Movies Aren’t Real
Hyde has trained Adam to stand up and roar on command. He needs to know how to do that because it’s how bear behavior is conveyed in movies. In the real world, that’s not how an attack would go down. In the real world, grizzlies give you no warning.
Tactic enlists the help of Todd Orr, who famously survived a double grizzly mauling just outside Bozeman back in 2016. Visibly nervous standing next to Adam, Orr described the attack. While hiking, he saw a mama bear and her cubs at a safe distance. They saw him and ran off into the woods. Orr figured he was safe, but suddenly mama reappeared at full charge. He had just enough time to fire off his bear spray before she knocked him down and began tearing him to pieces. She eventually lost interest, and a badly wounded Orr headed back to his truck. But on the way, she attacked again. You can read more about Orr’s ordeal here.
The lesson here is that you can’t count on seeing a grizzly in time to back away or take another action. At one point during the class, Adam got bored and wandered off about 30 yards. Predators have evolved to blend into their surroundings. Sitting down behind a small pine tree, the enormous bear was utterly invisible to us at that distance.
Forrest explained that grizzlies can charge at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, and unlike humans, who take several strides to accelerate, the bears can hit their top speed on their first bound. If Adam had charged us from that hiding place 30 yards away, he’d have been on us in just a couple seconds.
Rather than spending brainpower trying to divine bear body language (which Adam is employed to demonstrate firsthand), Forrest’s students are simply taught that if they see a bear, they should back away slowly until they’ve broken visual contact. Then they should immediately leave the area. Every grizzly is dangerous.
Why Bears Attack
During the classroom portion, Forrest talked about the various behaviors that can result in an attack and the different tactics you can apply to avoiding each.
Surprise: The most common cause of bear attacks. You inadvertently find yourself in close proximity to a bear, which is surprised by your presence and attacks in self-defense.
Protecting Cubs: A mama bear will aggressively defend her cubs against anything she perceives is a threat.
Guarding Food: A bear consuming a dead animal will want to keep away anything it perceives as competition.
Seeking Food: A curious bear is attracted by food smells in your camp or on your person and approaches to find a meal. This one’s particularly relevant to hunters; bears are often attracted to the smell of recently killed game. Rumor has it that some have even learned to associate the sound of a gunshot with the availability of a fresh meal.
Predation: Rarely, a young and inexperienced or injured grizzly may identify a human as prey.
Understanding the cause of an aggressive bear encounter is important, because it will inform the animal’s behavior if it attacks. A grizzly that’s surprised or guarding her cubs or food simply wants the threat to go away. A bear that is seeking food may have lost its fear of humans and could linger in a campsite. The very rare predatory bear may stalk and try to kill you.
The methods for avoiding each type of encounter also differ. Making noise will help avoid surprising a bear and may warn off a sow with cubs. Dogs may help alert a bear to your presence but could draw an attack from a defensive mother or a bear guarding food. A bear seeking food may be deterred by dogs and loud noises. A predatory bear could be attracted to dogs, noise, or just your smell.
Do those motivations and the actions you might take to avoid an encounter sound confusing and contradictory? They are. My takeaway is that you never know what you’re going to get if you encounter a grizzly, but the ability to make an immediate and accurate judgment call could be life-saving. That’s one of the reasons interacting with Adam and talking to attack survivors as part of Tactic’s course was so empowering.
(Oh, and by the way, here’s a guide to determining the difference between black bears and grizzlies.)
You know you should carry bear spray if you’re headed into bear country. But you probably don’t know how to use it. I used to be one of those people, and let me tell you, trying to effectively employ bear spray during a simulated bear attack was an eye-opening experience.
Just like a firearm, bear spray is both dangerous and ineffective in untrained hands. Forrest put together a moving target that replicates the speed of a charging bear and the distance one might surprise you from—just 20 feet. Carrying inert training spray in a belt holster, all students failed in their first attempt to deploy the spray, get it on target, and paint the “bear” with anything approaching an effective amount of the spray—even though we knew the target was going to charge us.
You can and should order a few cans of that inert training spray right now. It’s functionally identical to the real thing, with everything but the oleoresin capsicum irritant. Same controls, same capacity, same spray force and distance. When you get it, go outside and spray a can. I was surprised by the incredibly limited range (just a dozen feet or so) and how short the duration of available spray lasts (less than ten seconds). I was also disappointed by the narrow spread of the spray. It’s more like a can of hairspray on steroids than it is the wide-reaching “fog” that’s advertised. If bear spray is going to be effective, you’ll have to be very close to a bear and very fast and accurate with your deployment if you’re to stand any chance of deterring an attack. And as Orr’s experience demonstrates, a charging bear will not be stopped by spraying a little irritant in its face.
Forrest says the formulas used by most brands of bear spray are effectively identical, but he does recommend UDAP for the simple reason that its plastic “Griz Guard” holsters are less likely to foul your draw. And because you can control the can’s orientation within that holster, you can even arrange it so you can fire the spray without having to draw it, which could save crucial milliseconds.
My takeaway from spending most of an afternoon trying to hit a moving target with the inert spray was that most of us probably place way too much trust in bear spray. It may help deter a curious bear, but I would not want to rely on it as my only means of defense if I ever do experience an attack. Just throwing a can on your hip when you head into grizzly country is by no means capable of guaranteeing your safety.
Tactic also teaches its students how to use marine flares. Those have recently found favor in Alaska, where anglers have been using them to deter brown bears that get overly interested in their catch. Unlike bear spray, marine flares have the benefit of working longer and having a farther reach. Plus, there’s less risk of incapacitating yourself. Pop a flare, and an incredibly bright flame roars to life, burning for 60 seconds or more. Apparently all that light and noise is enough to scare bears at at a distances in excess of 100 yards. I’m sure you can see the potential application in keeping a bear away from a camp or kill, but obviously there’s also a risk of starting a wildfire if you don’t properly handle or dispose of a flare. I encourage you to seek training with flares before carrying one into the wilderness.
The Tricky Topic of Firearms
Statistics don’t lie. By bringing a firearm into your home, you’re putting yourself at greater risk than you face going into grizzly habitat with zero protection or knowledge. It’s only with significant training that a responsible gun owner can hope to use a gun to actually gain safety. If you choose to employ a firearm in addition to bear spray, you’re taking on the burden of possibly killing what’s both a magnificent animal and a threatened species. All grizzly fatalities are the subjects of exhaustive investigation by state and federal law enforcement agencies. If those parties find that you didn’t exercise good judgment in a grizzly attack, then you will face fines in the tens of thousands of dollars and possible jail time.
Having said all that, after completing Tactic’s training program (and others), I now carry a handgun in addition to bear spray each and every time I go somewhere there might be grizzly bears. And having completed the course, I know that gun might be the only tool I have capable of stopping a determined attack.
One of Tactic’s instructors actually survived a grizzly attack while elk hunting last year. A bear charged his hunting partner, who immediately deployed his bear spray. Unfortunately, the direction the bear was coming from was upwind, and the spray had no effect on the grizzly. Seeing that, the instructor drew his handgun and shot the bear dead. An investigation the next day ruled that shooting justifiable. The man saved his friend’s life.
The gun? A nine-millimeter Glock. It might be common to read on the internet that you need a huge revolver chambered in an impossibly powerful caliber to stop a bear, but based on real-world experience with bear attacks, Tactic teaches that it’s modern firearms and the modern shooting techniques they make possible that are most effective.
Forrest says that a round’s ability to penetrate the bear’s thick hide and tank-like bone structure, rather than its outright energy level, is what determines its effectiveness. He teaches that small and fast rounds are more effective than heavy, slow ones, but he does recommend that you use a hard cast lead hunting bullet. His favorite caliber for Grizzly defense: ten millimeters. His recommended gun: a Glock 20. I run 220-grain hard cast Buffalo Bore ammunition through mine. Forrest recommends you use a chest holster like those sold by Gunfighters. They keep the gun accessible if you’re wearing a backpack and on you when you take that pack off. It’s what I use now.
Throughout a day of dedicated range time, Tactic teaches its students to rapidly draw their weapons, then place as many rounds as possible on target as fast as they can fire the gun. Semi-automatic pistols like Glocks combine large magazine capacities with low recoil, enabling a knowledgeable shooter the best possible chance of critically wounding an attacking animal.
Forrest and his staff break down the skills required to do this in a friendly manner that will be accessible and effective even for novice shooters. With a near one-to-one student-to-instructor ratio, everyone in our class made rapid progress and left the course with newfound confidence in their abilities to protect themselves. Starting while facing away from the charging bear target, I managed to spin, draw, and place three rounds into an area the size of my hand in the two or three seconds it took the target to reach me. Virginia did even better. There’s a chance that might be good enough.
After the course was finished, I asked Forrest how he felt about training people to potentially take a grizzly’s life. “I’m training people to survive,” he answered frankly. He feels that he’s arming them with the knowledge to make the most informed decisions possible to avoid life-threatening situations, as well as the skills necessary to live through them.
The Only Sure Way to Avoid Grizzly Attacks
You just read a lot of matter-of-fact talk about guns and potentially even killing a really neat animal. And I get why that doesn’t feel very good. I’m a nature-loving hippie who spent his formative years in Europe, not someone who gets off on guns or the idea of killing a bear. But there’s also a high overlap between places I want to spend time outdoors and the growing habitat of grizzly bears.
Fortunately, even here in Montana, there is one surefire way to avoid bear conflict: simply avoid the places where they live. When I’m not in the mood to stay hyperalert, pack a gun, and take on the burden associated with both, I just go places where there aren’t grizzlies.
Tactic gives similar advice even to its trained students, even if they are headed to bear country. By consulting social media groups around local outdoor activities, paying attention to notices posted at trailheads, communicating with other land users, or even just calling your local ranger station, you can and should learn which areas are currently experiencing heavy grizzly activity and avoid them. Doing so is the most effective and practical way to prevent conflict with the species. “That’s the best advice I can give you,” Forrest says. The rest of the training he provides is then intended only for the very unlikely event that you do find yourself confronted with an aggressive grizzly—an encounter that he’s hopefully enabled you to avoid altogether.
Having completed the course, I have an even healthier respect for grizzly bears. I know how to avoid an encounter and what to expect if one occurs. I won’t say that I’m not still a little afraid, but at least now I’m armed with a plan for saving my life. You should be too.