Wednesday, April 18, 2018


When it comes to protecting myself against bears, I personally prefer firearms. I’m not against pepper spray, mind you, which has indeed proven effective on a great many occasions. For people completely unfamiliar with firearms, pepper spray is a sound and effective choice. It certainly offers a great deal more safety and security recreating in grizzly country than waltzing around completely unarmed.
          I do believe, however, that all of the supposedly empirical “proof” of its effectiveness has been grossly distorted and highly over-rated to the point that it gives people a very dangerously false sense of security.
            Just the other day, I ran across a gun article which said, “Alternatively, 97% of bears are stopped with a 9oz. can of bear spray. Yep I said it, bear spray. Comparing the percentages, a firearm should actually be carried as a second line of defense should the bear spray prove ineffective…I am a believer in math, so ‘I know’ that statistically the odds or survival will favor me should I choose the Bear Spray.”
Similarly, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service…you know, the people who spend American taxpayer dollars to help fund African and Asian elephant habitats at zoos in Europe…puts out a “Fact Sheet” entitled Bear Spray vs. Bullets. It makes such claims as, “…persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time.” And, “…a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”
          Well, the advocates cannot possibly be wrong, since they have math to prove it, right? As the old saying goes, “Statistics don’t lie.” That rather depends on the statistics and how they were garnered. There’s another old adage, generally attributed to Mark Twain, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Yet another old saying, again apropos, notes, “Torture numbers and they will confess to anything.”
          Although the advocates always say studies (plural) or even numerous studies prove the effectiveness of bear spray, when you seek out this plethora of studies (plural) they pretty much boil down into a single study (singular) that has appeared in a couple of different forms. The 2012 study was researched primarily by BYU professor Tom Smith and author Stephen Herrero and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management under the title of “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska.”
          Mankind has been taking out bears with “modern” firearms (loosely defined as ones using self-contained cartridge ammunition) for about a hundred and fifty years, but pepper spray is a comparatively new invention. In wide-spread use for only a couple of decades, it is naturally more difficult to find and compile incidents in which bear spray has been used.
The authors found 72 cases to include in the study. It is interesting to note that out of these 72 cases, 30% involved government personnel engaged in “bear management activities”, only 25 of the bears were considered aggressive, and just 10 cases involved actual bear charges and/or attacks. The majority dealt with curious or non-aggressive bears. On the other hand, 100% of the 197 bear vs. gun incidents chosen for the study involved aggressive bears and bear attacks.
          There seemed to be the scent of cherries being picked in the air when I considered the researchers found fewer than 200 incidents of bear attacks involving guns in Alaska over a 126 year period, especially when you take into account that when it comes to true “bush” Alaskans many minor children and even some household pets are routinely armed with large caliber firearms. Kodiak Island all by its lonesome averages about a dozen Defense of Life/Property incidents (these are common enough in Alaska that they even have their own acronym…DLPs) involving bears and guns every year.
A little digging found a 1999 study conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (Miller & Tutterrow) entitled Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries From Bears in Alaska. This study documented 2,289 cases within the State of Alaska of people using firearms to defend themselves and/or their property against bears during the period from 1970 to 1996. In this study, fewer than 2% of the incidents involved injuries to humans. One summary noted, “Most of the people shooting brown or black bears in DLP circumstances indicated that no human injury occurred (98.5% for brown bears and 99.2% for black bears).”
Percentage-wise, that comes to only 1.15% of those who used firearms against bears being injured. That’s a helluva long way from the Federale’s “Fact Sheet” claim that you stand a 50-50 chance of injury or death by shooting a bear in self-defense.
It is also interesting to note that the Alaskan state researchers uncovered well over two thousand documented cases over a period of just 26 years; that averages out to 88 attacks per year. Apply that average over a 126-year period and you could potentially have as many as 11,088 bear attacks to study. Examining 72 of those cases amounts to a statistical sampling of 0.65% which, no matter how I try to stretch it, seems to fall a tad bit short of proving anything with 97% certainty.
It was, however, personal experience that led to my own loss of faith in pepper spray. In the US Forest Circus, Department of Aggravation, we used to be required to take a yearly 4-hour block of instruction on the use of pepper spray in order to be “qualified” to carry it for protection in bear country. I recall most clearly the training session taught by a lady biologist. Pepper spray was much more effective than a firearm, she began, because an ex-boyfriend had taken her out shooting once and she wasn’t able to hit anything, thus proving that guns are ineffective. Since this was undoubtedly true from her personal perspective, I was willing to let that slide.
Other information during the training also made me go hhhmmmm. While the instructor claimed that pepper spray was indeed “proven” effective against bears, she admitted that it might not necessarily work against large felines or canines, and legally could not be used as protection against two-legged varmints.
          When we went outside for the practical demonstration of pepper spray, the class became truly enlightening. The instructor unlimbered the canister of pepper spray which she personally carried on duty in the woods and let fly. Only a small bit of liquid substance oozed rather sluggishly out of the nozzle and dribbled down her fingers. She washed her hands thoroughly, broke out a brand new can of pepper spray still in the plastic wrapper, and took another poke at it. This can sprayed for somewhere close to a good three quarters of a second before it also just up and quit entirely. But the THIRD can, also brand-new in the wrap, worked as advertised, “proving” its superiority over a firearm by streaming out in a fan-shaped pattern.
          I, of course, had a huge problem with the whole one-in-three success rate. That did not inspire much confidence. I sure as hell wouldn’t advocate carrying a revolver if I could only count on two out of the six cartridges actually going off when I dropped the hammer.
There was no wind that particular day, either. Knowing my luck, I always kind of figured that if I ever had to use pepper spray it would be at the exact moment I was facing into a 40 mph headwind. Dispersion and blow-back due to wind is certainly possible, although IIRC it was only listed as a factor in 7% of the cases studied. Consider also that while you may be able to defend yourself against a bear with spray, you may very well be SOL when it comes to protecting a partner or friend standing only five or ten yards away.
Lastly, I personally used pepper spray in an attempt to run a problem black bear out of a campground. I can’t recall the brand name, but the stuff I used was the USFS approved, recommended and issued capsaicin-based spray. On my first attempt, I sprayed the bear in the face out the truck window at a distance of 20-25 feet. This failed to impress the bear in question, a 2 or 3 year-old blackie that probably wouldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. After being sprayed in the face, he snorted, shook his head vigorously, and ambled away in a leisurely fashion further into the campground. I headed him off at the pass and gave him another dose of pepper spray at similar range. This time he made a couple of sneezing noises, rubbed at his face and eyes irritatedly with a paw, then looked straight at me and growled. With a final snort he continued on his way, back into the campground, in no big hurry. A third application was mostly scattered by the wind, but the bear finally felt harassed enough to stroll unhurriedly off into the woods for the moment. He was back raiding the campground within the hour.
          Between all these incidents, I eventually became completely underwhelmed by the effectiveness of pepper spray. If I were an academic, I could cherry pick my own personal “statistics” and author a study substantiating that pepper spray has a 66% failure-to-fire rate and has been proven in the field to be 100% ineffective against black bears.
          I am making no such ludicrous claims. Even I readily admit that such a small sampling is essentially worthless for the purposes of statistical proof. It would be as ridiculous as, say, specifically singling out a mere 0.65% of bear attacks spread out over a century and a quarter.
          I’m not saying, nor do I believe, that pepper spray is worthless or ineffective. It is a viable and valuable option that can greatly increase your personal safety in case of a bear attack. It can work quite effectively and has most certainly been used successfully on a great many occasions over the past couple of decades. It has saved lives, both human and ursine. Especially for people who don’t know anything about guns, it is an obvious choice. Pepper spray certainly beats the hell out of walking around the woods completely defenseless.
          I am saying that, mainly for political reasons, the powers-that-be have intentionally over-stated the true effectiveness of pepper spray while deliberately denigrating the use of firearms. It is not omnipotent and infallible; simply buying a can does not instantly render you 97% invulnerable in bear country. It’s more a last line of defense for when all else goes wrong and the bear shit hits the fan and you have no other options. Ironically, I can say exactly the same thing when it comes to the big-bore handguns I prefer.
          If you chose to carry pepper spray, I would offer a few words of advice. Not all pepper sprays are equal; you don’t want the personal defense or law enforcement sprays designed for use against people. What you need should contain capsicum and be clearly labeled, “For deterring attacks by bears.” Minimum size of the canister should be 7.9 ounces and it should have a minimum spray distance of 25 feet and a spray duration of at least 6 seconds. A larger size is obviously valuable in case more than one application is required to deter a bear.
          As with even the most powerful weapon available, pepper spray is worthless if, at the moment of truth, it is buried in your pack and inaccessible. Even worse is to carry it attached to the exterior of the pack, where it’s both difficult to reach quickly as well as susceptible to getting snagged in the brush where it could accidentally triggered, depleting your defenses while potentially giving you a nice incapacitating dose to boot.
Carry pepper spray on your person and easily accessible at all times; the good brands come with a holster that can be attached to a belt. Practice drawing the can from its holster and removing the plastic safety clip until you can do so smoothly and easily with no fumbling around. Pay close attention to the expiration date and test fire the canister at least once at the beginning of each season. Since I spend a great deal of time in the mountains every year, doing activities that involve my gear getting occasionally jostled, bumped or dropped, if I relied entirely upon pepper spray, I would simply purchase a brand new canister at least every other year regardless of the expiration date. Even though pepper spray is not our primary means of defense, we still carry it, and replace it with a new can every third year.
Lastly, in an attack you need to concentrate the spray cloud directly in the bear’s face or just in front of it. There is somewhat of a “recoil” type of effect when holding down the button on the spray can that can tend to lift your hand a bit and thus disperse the spray pattern upwards. Be sure to keep the cloud down and concentrated where it will do the most good.
          Although my wife and I both carry .44 Magnum revolvers and pepper spray in the woods, neither one is our primary defense against bear attacks. Our primary defense is avoiding bear attacks in the first place by maintaining good situational awareness and practicing all of the “Bear Aware” methods of avoiding a confrontation altogether.
          Of course, sometimes shit happens no matter what precautions you take. I’ve cleaned up some unbelievable messes people have left in the woods. You and your party may be scrupulously following all of the best practices only to discover that the previous campers dumped fifty pounds of garbage a stone’s throw away from your present campsite. Or it could just be one of those times when Murphy’s Law decides to kick in.
          While we do carry pepper spray as a non-lethal alternative if the situation allows, for us it is Plan B. Plan A remains the revolver because I know it will go “bang” each and every time I pull the trigger, the ammunition won’t “go bad” over time, it can be used with equal effectiveness against multiple threats and species, and not even the stiffest of headwinds will blow a 300-grain bullet back in my face.