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On Aug. 23, 2018, a family of four set out on the Divide Trail for a hike in Yellowstone. As they reached the half-mile mark, a mother grizzly bear came charging out of the vegetation. She chased the 10-year-old hiker, knocking him down.
You know what may have saved his life? His parents had bear spray, knew how to use it and deployed the bear spray about five feet from the bear’s face. The bear shook its head and left the area. While the boy suffered an injured wrist, puncture wounds to the back and buttocks, he survived the encounter.
As a visitor to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, you’re naturally curious about bears. You’d like to see bears, but not up close and personal — that’s more than a little scary. You’d like to do some hiking in and around Yellowstone, ranging from maybe half an hour’s walk, to a full day. Maybe you’re more ambitious and plan on a backpacking trip. You’ve heard that pepper spray is a good deterrent to bears, both black and grizzly. Heck, you already have a little keychain canister of pepper spray, so you’re good to go, right? Wrong.
A charging grizzly bear is NOT the same thing as a mugger on a street corner, or even a charging pit bull. A grizzly bear can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and can outrun an Olympic sprinter, so you need a “bear” pepper spray deterrent that’s up to the job.
What Kind of Bear Spray Is Best?
The Sierra Club’s conservation organizer Monica Fella said to make sure that the canister:
- Says the product is made for stopping or preventing bear attacks.
- Contains at least 7.9 ounces of spray.
- Contains 1–2 percent capsaicin/capsaicinoids.
- Can spray a minimum of 25 feet.
- Has a minimum spray duration of 6 seconds, and is EPA registered.
- Is immediately at hand in a belt or chest holster. It doesn’t do any good in a knapsack.
Canisters smaller than this may not last long enough or spray far enough to stop a bear’s charge.
Fella says she worries that visitors to bear country might rationalize the purchase of smaller canisters, when shopping for pepper spray.
“You really need the bigger canister,” she says.
Counter Assault bear spray, the first company to make bear spray, sells a 10-ounce bottle that sprays 40 feet and has 8 seconds of spray. The company’s 8-ounce bottle sprays 32 feet for 7 seconds.
Where to Get Your Bear Spray
Bear spray is sold at gift shops, outdoor stores (such as REI and Camping World), service stations, and Yellowstone Association bookstores inside the park, as well as in many stores in the surrounding towns. During the busy summer season, park stores sometimes sell out of the spray so it is best to plan ahead, but do not buy bear spray and expect to board an airplane with it. Find stores that sell Counter Assault Bear Spray near the park by searching for “Yellowstone National Park” and adjusting the radius to “50 mi” at www.counterassault.com/dealer-locator-page/.
Bear spray is available for rent at Canyon Village. Bear Aware LLC rents 9.2 oz. Pepper Power® bear spray from a kiosk near the Canyon Visitor Education Center. The kiosk is located at the north end of the visitor center plaza, 20 yards from the main entrance. Rentals include holster and belt, hiking safety information, and instructions on proper use of bear spray. For more information visit Bear Aware at www.bearaware.com
Recycling Bear Spray
Safe disposal of bear spray can be a challenge. It can’t be taken on airplanes. And if thrown in the trash, it can injure others or become a hazard in landfills.
A group of private and public partners has developed a machine that safely removes active ingredients and propellant from each bear spray canister. The components are sorted for recycling and diverted from landfills.
Bear spray canisters can be recycled at park hotels, stores, visitor centers, backcountry offices, and ranger stations, as well as area camping stores, and the Bozeman airport.
How to Use Bear Spray
To be effective, bear spray has to hit the eyes and nose of the bear. Don’t spray when the bear is too far away or your spray won’t make contact. Check the maximum distance of the spray on your canister — most will spray from 25–30 feet. Spray in 2–3 second bursts. Don’t aim high in the air — the bear’s head will be low as it is charging. Aim slightly lower than the bear’s head so the bear spray will envelop the bear’s head and respiratory system and its eyes.
Be sure not to spray the whole can at once, warns Gary Moses, a former Glacier and Yellowstone park ranger who works as a product ambassador for Counter Assault bear spray. If the wind pulls your bear spray in a different direction or you misaimed, you’ll want some spray left in your can to deter the bear.
Unlike a gun, bear pepper spray does not have to be aimed precisely to stop a charging bear. The bear pepper spray makes a hanging fog in the air, and when the spray hits the bear, or visa versa, it causes immediate irritation in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat and lungs, temporarily disabling the bear. According to experts, there is no better way to stop an attack by an aggressive grizzly.
University of Calgary grizzly bear expert Stephen Herrero analyzed dozens of human-bear encounters and found bear pepper spray to be 94 percent effective in deterring aggressive bears.
Of course, bear pepper spray is not a substitute for staying alert and taking basic precautions. In the backcountry, hikers should exercise good judgment and follow recommended safety precautions, such as making noise and traveling in a group — not alone.
Bear pepper spray should only be used if you are charged by a bear. Do not use bear pepper spray to harass or chase animals out of your yard. Call your local wildlife management agency to assist you.
Gary Clutter, a big game hunter from Bozeman had a face-to-face encounter with a grizzly while hunting a few years ago, and bear spray saved him from a dire situation. “I caught the bear (with bear pepper spray) full in the face when it was four feet away. It was like it hit a wall. The grizzly turned and ran so fast toward her cub she ran over it,” Clutter said. “Then, cub and sow were gone. This worked exactly the way it was designed to work. The bears didn’t die and all I’m out is a can of bear pepper spray.”