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Bear Big Game

Is Your Life Worth $40 in Griz Country?

by Conrad Evarts   |  July 8th, 2011 8

$40 to give you a 92% chance of surviving a bear attack. Cheaper than a casket.

Brian Matayoshi would likely be alive today if he carried a $40 canister of bear repellent spray on Wednesday.

According to bear pepper spray research data compiled by Dr. Thomas Smith, an Associate Professor of Plant and Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University, bear spray stopped aggressive bears in 92% of the cases studied. The research covered twenty years of incidents in Alaska.

Of the 175 people who used bear spray and were involved in these incidents only three were injured and none went to the hospital. Contrast this with nearly 300 bear attacks involving firearms, the firearms were only effective in 67% of the cases.

According to Smith “The reason guns are less effective than bear spray is the difficulty of making an accurate shot during a split second chase. Smith’s data shows it take an average of four hits to stop a bear. Bear spray is easier to carry and easier to use accurately in an emergency than a gun.”

This article and the research it is based on are very interesting. I would suggest reading the article. Smith thinks one of the reasons bear spray is effective, is it requires the person being charged to hold their position, thereby avoiding triggering the bear’s instinct to chase. Another upside is that a bear that has been sprayed in the past remembers it. I’ve heard reports that bears encountering humans with spray regularly are being conditioned to depart to avoid being sprayed. Sometimes this merely requires raising an arm in gesture similar to spraying.

Bart Bratlien of my neighborhood sporting good store, Capital Sports in Helena, MT took a few minutes to demonstrate proper deployment of bear spray and to discuss his choice of a “plan b” firearm in the off chance the bear spray fails.

We used a training canister for this video. Bratlien noted that actual spray with the pepper is heavier and will spray a longer distance than what you saw. It is also red in color.

I would highly suggest visiting the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee for the most comprehensive, research-based bear safety information. The documents are well written, easy to read and very sensible.

Also, check out this video created by Counter Assault, a leading manufacturer of bear spray.

My wife, who works with bears for MT Fish Wildlife and Parks told me that to empty an expired canister, you spray the remaining contents into a bucket of water and poor the water out somewhere out of the way. Don’t just throw it in your trash bin. If it is punctured or heated to the point it explodes, it will mess people up.


  • dave smith

    Most of the people who used bear spray in the study sprayed a curious or food-conditioned bear making a slow approach–not a charging grizzly. The study only includes data on how bear spray worked when people had time to use it. Plenty of hikers have not had time to use bear spray against a charging grizzly. The infamous photographer Jim Cole was carrying bear spray he did not have time to use when a grizzly ripped off half his half his face a few years ago not far from where Matayoshie died. Bear spray does not give you a 92% chance of surviving a charge by a grizzly.

    • Conrad Evarts


      Please fill us in more thoroughly on your information. I would like to present the most accurate information possible here because this is a real issue in my home area, but I don't feel comfortable leaving your claims up if you can't cite the sources of your information.

      Also, I don't think Jim Cole was infamous, I think the incident may have been infamous. Either way, his situation would have been more anecdotal evidence when what we're looking for here is clear, long term data to base our decisions on.

      I'll leave your comment up for a week to give you time to explain how you know the bears were making slow approaches and what the number associated with "most" is.

      Thanks for your interest.


  • Dave Smith

    Conrad–My information comes from the study you mentioned: Tom Smith's "Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska." Incidentally, there's no data on firearms vs. bears in "Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska." The abstract for the study opens by stating, "We present a comprehensive look at a sample of bear spray incidents that occurred in Alaska, USA, from 1985 to 2006." Bear spray, not firearms. If you don't mind my asking, would you please provide the source for your quotes about firearms. I don't know where you got your information on firearms, but it wasn't Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska or any other peer-reviewed scientific publication.

    Tom Smith's Alaska bear spray study says, "In 62% (31 of 50) of brown bear incidents bears were either acting curious or searching for food or garbage before being sprayed . . . In 36% (18 of 50) of brown bear incidents, brown bears acted aggressively towards people before being sprayed. In 86% (12 of 14 for which distance was known) of these incidents, the person was first aware of the bear at ,15 m, with a mean estimated distance of 6 m. In the remaining 2 instances, bears were first noticed at 25 m and 50 m, respectively. In 64% (9 of 14) of these close encounters, brown bears charged the person(s) before being sprayed. In 85% (12 of 14) of aggressive encounters with brown bears, bear spray stopped the bear’s aggressive behavior."

    I said Jim Cole is infamous because in addition to getting mauled in Yellowstone, he got mauled in Glacier Nat'l Park. That's a first. Plus he was cited and taken to court by Yellowstone officials for approaching grizzly bears for pictures. Would he have the cajones to stalk and approach grizzlies for photos if he wasn't armed with bear spray?

    • Conrad Evarts

      In the fifth paragraph of the article I included a hyperlink to, "BYU study shows bear pepper spray a viable alternative to guns for deterring bears" states "Smith's previous research found that guns were effective about 67 percent of the time. Shooting accurately during the terrifying split seconds of a grizzly charge is extremely difficult, he pointed out, and his data shows that it takes an average of four hits to stop a bear. In addition, firearms are prohibited in national parks like Glacier and Denali, popular with hikers and also with bears."

      I'm happy to leave your additional information up and appreciate your interest.

  • Dave Smith

    Conrad–Thanks for the link to a press release about Tom Smith's study on bear spray use in Alaska. Could you provide a link to Professor Smith's "previous research" showing that guns were effective about 67 percent of the time?

    Google "Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska," and you'll find several links to the bear spray study. Google ____???? for a link to a study on firearms use vs bears in Alaska. Smith's bear spray study was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Stephen Herrero published a study on bear spray in Ursus, the quarterly publication of the International Association for Bear Researsh and Management. Where was the study on firearms vs bears published?

    It's worth noting that firearms are now legal in national parks like Glacier and Denali. I think bear spray is a better choice for people who are not competent with an adequate firearm, and the only option for people who simply don't like guns. I personally don't know who's competent and who isn't, and consider it an individual hikers' right to decide for themselves whether they want to use bear spray or a firearm.

  • Conrad Evarts


    I just spoke with Dr. Tom Smith. He explained the the research that lead to the 67%. Even better, he has a new study in review at the moment called "Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrents in Alaska". It will be available inside the next four months, but likely much sooner. Based on the research he and Stephen Herrero did, they raised the number to 73%. Dr. Smith stated in his email this morning, "As noted in the conversation, the newly generated stat is 73% but we openly acknowledge the 'real' percent is likely higher… but we can only 'crunch' the data we have."

    I will post a link to Dr. Smith's paper when it becomes available.

  • dave smith

    I'm thrilled we're finally going to have a scientific study on guns vs bears that will provide hunters with useful information on how to handle a charging grizzly. Use an adequate gun. Don't sling a rifle over your shoulder–the two-hand safe carry is best for bringing your rifle into action quickly. Don't fire a warning shot because if it doesn't work you might jam your rifle in your haste to get off another shot. Since so many hunters wound charging bears, maybe Smith & Herrero will offer advice on where to aim. In Alaska, employees of state and federal agencies get to practice shooting at bear-like targets moving toward them fast. Hunters in the lower-48 states should have the same type of facilities available.

    The study on firearms vs bears will clearly show that the Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho fish & game departments have failed to prepare hunters in grizzly country for a worst case scenario with a bear.

    I suspect environmentalists and anti-hunters will compare the success rate of hunters who used a firearm vs. charging grizzlies to the success rate of hikers and non-hunters who used bear spray vs charging grizzlies to "prove" hunters should use bear spray for self-defense.. That's absurd. Center for Wildlife Information director Chuck Bartlebaugh says you need two hands to operate bear spray, and hunters carrying a rifle don't have two hands free.

  • Dave Smith

    BYU has done a press release on Tom Smith's soon to be released study on guns vs. bears. Thus far, Smith's most interesting comments pertaining to hunters came during a March 8th radio interview with Joaqlin Estus at KNBA: "Somebody said, I wouldn't put my gun down to use bear spray, and I said, well, I'm with you on that. I wouldn't either. That doesn't make sense. If I had a gun in my hands and a bear was charging, I would start shooting and I wouldn't quit until it was down and dead."

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