Personal protection against bears – guns or bear spray?
I spent seven years as a backcountry ranger in northern British Columbia, and one of the questions I got asked the most was, “do you carry a gun out there?” They seemed genuinely concerned when I told them that I usually just carried bear spray.
To many folks in the north, and I’m sure wherever gun culture is prevalent, bear spray is seen as something a gimmick. I can understand that. I have been approached by an angry grizzly, and let me tell you, that can of bear spray made me feel a little like I’d shown up to a formal ball in my Pjs.
Yet here I am, years later still traipsing around bear country without a gun. Here’s why.
Effectiveness of bear spray
This may be counterintuitive, but bear spray does work better at deterring bears than firearms. It’s nasty stuff, and when an animal with the sense of smell 100 times more powerful than a human’s gets a face-full of it, it’ll usually stop its charge immediately. Bears, particularly grizzlies, often continue their attack, even after a fatal shot. It’s not surprising then that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports that around 50% of people using firearms in a grizzly encounter still suffered injuries. Those using bear spray suffered from much fewer and less severe injuries.
A 2008 study by biologist Tom Smith looked at 600 bear encounters in Alaska. Bear spray proved 92% effective in the 72 cases that it was used. Four years later, Smith did another study in 2012 looking at bear encounters involving firearms. Depending on how you interpret the study, firearms were somewhere between 58% and 76% effective.
Speed and Ease of Use
Even a good marksman or markswoman will take at least a few seconds to unsling a gun, chamber a round, aim, and fire. Even if you are in ready position with your gun, simply aiming is going to take longer than unholstering a can of bear spray. To make matters worse, a bad shot may just make a bear angrier. Add to that the panic that comes with being face-to-face with and angry apex predator, and I’d say your chances are a lot better with bear spray.
Carrying too much weight isn’t just unpleasant, it can be dangerous. If you are fatigued, you are going to be less aware of your surrounding, less likely to make noise, and slower to react in the event of a bear encounter.
A 12-gauge shotgun is going to weigh 6 or 7 lbs. Compare that to 8-11oz for a canister of bear and there is no contest. While a lighter gun may stand up against a black bear, a grizzly needs some serious power to bring it down.
Just because a bear is angry at you doesn’t make it an evil creature that needs to die. Remember, you are in its home, and it’s usually just defending itself. Sometimes it’s only approaching out of curiosity, and spraying it will simply teach it that humans are best avoided.
That being said a predatory, habituated, or unusually aggressive bears should be reported to the appropriate authorities so they can take action if necessary.
No matter how safe you are with your firearm, it’s hard to predict what kind of bad decisions you’ll make if you are panicked. There are plenty of stories of people inadvertently shooting themselves or their partners while hurrying to get a shot at the bear.
What about Wind and the Short Range?
In good conditions, bear spray should shoot at least 16 feet, but some brands will shoot further. This may seem uncomfortably close, but a bear further away will likely decide you aren’t worth the trouble before it actually attacks. You can also spray a bit earlier to make a cloud for the bear to run through.
In the Smith study, only five of the bear spray cases were affected by wind, and the spray still hit their target. You may get sprayed a little yourself, but it’s a small price to pay.
It’s now legal in many U.S. national parks to carry firearms, but the ruling is still subject to state laws. Here in Canada, it is illegal to carry firearms (with some exceptions for polar bears) in national parks. Oddly, it is also illegal to carry bear spray in Yosemite, so if you plan on hiking there, bring your bear sense.
Things to Note
Now I want to make a few points clear. Carrying any form of bear defence does not replace the need to use your bear sense. Always make noise while hiking, stay aware of your surroundings, avoid hiking alone, keep you camp free of food smell, and know what to do in a bear encounter to avoid an attack.
Also, no matter what you choose to carry, know how to use it. If you choose bear spray, practice unholstering your bear spray and removing the safety, and ALWAYS keep it somewhere where you can grab it. Should you have an expired canister, practice discharging it. If you choose a gun, make sure it’s going to be powerful enough and practice getting it ready and taking aim in a variety of situations.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Bear Spray vs. Bullets: Which offers better protection? Living with Grizzlies http://www.bearsmart.com/docs/BearSprayVsBullets.pdf
Tom Smith et al. Efficacy of firearms for bear deterrence in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management. 76(5):1021-1102J. July 2012. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/326124/efficacy-of-firearms-for-bear-deterrence-in-alaska.pdf
Tom Smith, et al. Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management 72(3):640 – 645 · December 2008. http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/bear_cougar/bear/files/JWM_BearSprayAlaska.pdf
Also, check out this video put together by Carley Fairbrother, together with a giveaway she is running this month: