My dad has a paranoid fear of bears. So much so that he — a lifelong city dweller and non-gun owner — bought not one, but two shotguns to take with him to the wilderness cabin he built in the Sangre De Cristo mountains of Colorado. You know, in case one of them fails when the inevitable Ursine Uprising of 2009 happens.
I wish he'd waited just a bit longer before forking over his cash to Smith & Wesson: A new comprehensive study by BYU wildlife biologist Tom Smith and bear attack guru Steven Herrero found that when bear spray is used properly, it stopped a charging bear 90 percent of the time. Guns, meanwhile, have a one-in-three chance of failing to stop attacking bears.
"The probability is the bear spray will outperform a firearm and it's easy to see why. The spray is easy to deploy. The rifle is just difficult to use," Smith said. Stopping a charging bear with bullets required, on average, four hits.
Smith and Herrero's team studied 600 attacks over 20 years in Alaska and factored in newspaper accounts, anecdotes and reports from wildlife agencies to determine the bears' activity before being sprayed, distance involved, time of day, wind, mechanical problems and spray dosage. In the 72 instances that employed bear spray, 150 people were involved, and only three reported injuries — none of which required hospitalization.
Most of the Alaskan bear spray deployments involved grizzlies; the rest were black bears and polar bears. Though the study provides compelling evidence, bear-spray advocates called for similar studies to be done with inland mountain grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming, which tend to be more aggressive because they don't have salmon runs to feed on.
The study, funded by the U.S. Geological Society and the Alaska Science Center, should help dispel myths about bear spray's ineffectiveness, and it could help conserve bear populations in the west. Every year, hunters and others kill bears in self defense; between 1980 and 2002, 49 grizzlies were killed near Yellowstone, while 29 were killed near Glacier.
If anything, this is great news for ultralight hikers in bear country: "I've got my 11-ounce can of bear spray, so I guess I'll just go on ahead, Dad. Have fun lugging your two ten-pound shotguns. Oh, and let me know if that Bear Apocalypse ever happens." — Ted Alvarez
Wildlife encounters: If you meet a bear, don't shoot. Spray. (Salt Lake Tribune)