In my work as a wildlife guide I have spent more time than most folks in close proximity to grizzly bears. I have also spent considerable time travelling through grizzly territory on personal adventures. So,occasionally, people ask if I carry a gun when engaged in either of these activities.
The short answer is no. But I do carry bear spray. When I tell people this, they often ask if bear spray actually works. The short answer? Yes.
I don’t base this on personal experience (I’ve never had to use bear spray in over 1000 hours of close observation of grizzlies). Rather, I base it on scientific evidence. Dr. Stephen Herrero, the man who wrote the definitive book on bear attacks, co-authored a paper in 2008 on the efficacy of bear spray for the Journal of Wildlife Management.
In that study bear spray stopped “undesirable” behaviour 92% of time when used on grizzly bears. Ninety-two percent. That is pretty darn good. Moreover, 98% of all people carrying bear spray were uninjured by bears in close-up encounters.
Even better, the results of this study are based on actual events, unlike most stories you hear about grizzlies, which have a tendency to become sensationalist accounts of the rare instances when bears threaten, injure or kill people (Note: in North America, more people are injured or killed by vending machines each year than by grizzlies)1.
The take home message?: bear spray is a highly effective non-lethal grizzly bear deterrent – and there is peer-reviewed science to back up that claim.
Better yet, it doesn’t take any special training to use the stuff safely, unlike guns. Not to mention, that nobody (bear, nor human) dies when people use bear spray. An added bonus is that using bear spray may help condition unruly bears to stay away from people in the future. There is no such second chance for a bear that has been shot dead.
I think it is important to have some way to protect yourself in those rare situations when, despite taking all the right precautions, you just get unlucky and find yourself face to face with a disgruntled grizzly.
But, when I am out and about, I am usually burdened with a whack of camera gear or other stuff and the last thing I want to do is schlep around another large heavy object like a gun everywhere I go. And here’s the thing: if I am not willing to do just that – if I leave the gun in camp because it is a nuisance– then it is not an effective bear safety device.
By contrast, a canister of bear spray is small and light and I don’t even notice it hanging from my belt.
I am not condemning the use of guns for bear safety. Rather, I am just pointing out that bear spray is cheaper, lighter and more convenient than a gun in my books. Also, it works – but I guess I already said that.
Lets face it – some folks insist on the necessity of carrying a gun in grizzly territory strictly to inflate the ruggedness of their adventures. Because, surely, if you are travelling in a place where you are at serious risk of fatal gnashing by a wild toothy monster if you don’t have a big gun, then you must be the very embodiment of manhood. I guess that means I am not the very embodiment of manhood. Fine. I can live with that.
Ultimately, carrying bear spray or a gun for bear safety is a personal choice. As long as it is a well informed choice, based on knowledge of bear behaviour and conflict avoidance, coupled with the necessary skill to use the device of choice, then I am okay with that. But, it almost becomes a moot point – you’ll likely never have to use it.
1. This statistic came from True Grizz by Douglas Chadwick.
Note: Watching the film Staying Safe in Bear Country is one excellent way to familiarize, or refresh yourself, with the principles of bear behaviour as well as avoiding and reacting to encounters.