March 21, 2022
Anyone who has knowingly trekked through grizzly country has asked the question, either out loud or in quiet internal moments of fear or apprehension, “Am I really ready for a bear attack?”
It’s no secret that grizzly bear attacks are some of the most dramatic examples of all human-wildlife conflicts. They invade our collective consciousness with flashes of the age-old struggle between us and the wild unknown. Accounts of attacks are almost always front-page news and often go viral in a world that leans on the sensational and gory aspects of these tales to capture our attention.
It seems that this will continue to dominate the “Nature is Metal” social media age, even if a bloody encounter with a raging bear is very improbable.
If you’d like to know the odds, getting mauled by a grizzly bear would be about four times less likely than getting struck by lightning. According to the Center for Disease Control (which for some reason tracks this kind of stuff), the chances of being struck by lightning each year are around 1 in 500,000 Yellowstone National Park, which likely hosts the most grizzly bear encounters in the United States each year, reports that the chances of being attacked by a grizzly bear are approximately 1 in 2.7 million visits. Now, this isn’t exactly apples to apples, but Yellowstone is at least an effective test case for bear-human interaction.
Unlike tourists, your goal as a big-game hunter is to kill an animal, thereby placing yourself right next to a big pile of grizzly bait, hanging out there for hours, and then strapping that bloody meat to your back for a hike to the truck. Not to mention a grizzly bear can smell that elk or deer carcass from up to 18 miles away and run up to 35 mph at full tilt.
A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports, a multidisciplinary journal from Nature Research, took a comprehensive look at bear attacks on a global scale. Researchers found a total of 664 attacks between 2000 and 2015 from the main geographical areas that brown bears can be found. North America clocked in at 11.4 attacks per year and 24 total deaths over the 15-year period. In 63 percent of all cases worldwide, the person attacked was alone, and in 22 percent of all cases, that person was hunting.
Based on this you might say that hunting in bear country without thoroughly questioning your own preparedness would be about as smart as strolling into a lightning storm wearing a tinfoil hat and thrusting a golf club toward the sky.
There are some outdoorsmen and women who step into new country in much the same way. They haven’t done their homework and are vulnerable to a surprised, protective sow or a big, nasty boar that might be exploring their scent and considering his options. Whether it’s the ignorance of a rookie or the overconfidence of a veteran, there is simply no excuse for brushing off the question: Are you really ready?
The Definition of Readiness
In the search to find an answer in this rhetorical exercise, it’s important to better understand how we arrived at the question.
Before you ask yourself if you’re ready for an attack, it’s best to ask how you can avoid one altogether. A clear distinction needs to be made between avoidance and attack readiness.
They’re both important, but for hunters, avoidance can never be the only line of defense.
Chris Forrest agrees. He is a former Navy SEAL and owner of Tactic, a Montana-based combat training firm that centers on teaching law enforcement and civilian clients a process the military calls “forging.” Tactic offers a long list of courses that “focus on building habits that will not degrade under stress.”
This includes critical thinking skills that can be used to evaluate a dangerous situation and then to act quickly to keep yourself safe.
“Tactics for bear avoidance are actions and strategies to avoid a conflict with a grizzly bear,” said Forrest. “While attack readiness requires the mental and physical preparedness to save your life if avoidance tactics fail.”
The two tools that align with this thinking and are most synonymous with bear defense are non-lethal, which includes bear spray, and lethal, the most common of which is a high-power handgun.
“In the SEALS, we had a saying, ‘Two is one, and one is none,’” said Forest. “This means Murphy’s Law is always in effect, and you better have two contingencies in case one fails. If I am going into bear country, I make sure I have two or more techniques to deter a grizzly bear.”
In response to the local Bozeman bowhunting community’s interest, Forrest now offers anyone with $425 and two days of free time the opportunity to take “Surviving the Grizz,” his bear-defense course. The class includes training with bear spray and a pistol. Oh, it also offers the chance to get up close and personal with a real grizzly bear.
“First, students learn to assess bear biology and behavior, especially signs of aggression, by observing a live grizzly,” he said. “Next, they appreciate the physical prowess of a grizzly through story and video, [assessing a bear’s] smell, speed, strength, and physical characteristics. Next, they hear a testimonial by Todd Orr of how to mentally survive an attack.”
Orr, if you’re not familiar, is probably one of the most notable grizzly bear attack survivors of the modern era. The bloody post-attack monologue he shot on his cell phone and posted on social media went viral back in 2016 and earned him appearances on NBC’s Today and in TIME magazine.
Anatomy of an Attack
An avid hunter, longtime U.S. Forest Service employee, and knifemaker from Ennis, Montana, Orr was on an early-morning scouting mission near his home when he spotted a sow and three cubs. Orr had a wolf tag in his pocket, so along with bear spray, he was carrying a Rock Island Armory 1911 in 10mm with a long-eye-relief scope. This rig wasn’t ideal for bear defense, but having spent his life in the backcountry, Orr was “aware but not worried.”
The female grizzly bear soon spotted him as well and ran off with her cubs over a westerly ridge.
“I felt quite confident that I would never see her again,” said Orr. “A moment later, she was charging over the ridge behind me, low to the ground and with her ears laid back. I had about two seconds to pull the bear spray from my chest holster, still assuming it was a bluff charge. At about 30 feet [with the bear] still coming at full throttle, I realized this was the real deal. I gave her a full blast of spray, but she blew through the mist and was upon me instantly.”
Orr put his face in the dirt, curled up in a ball and wrapped his arms around the back of his neck for protection. The bear was in a frenzy, biting his arms, shoulders, and back.
“I knew I could be in big trouble now but hoped the blast of bear spray in her face had reached her sinuses and she would leave as quickly as she arrived,” he said, noting that he could hear her canine teeth ripping through his right arm.
The bear soon ran off, coughing from the spray. As Orr scrambled to get back to the truck and find safety, the bear returned and hit him again. He had no time to react and soon she was biting him and ripping the flesh from his skull. Eventually, she quit and just stood on top of the hunter, breathing and huffing. Then she was gone.
He made it out to his truck, then to the hospital and eventually into the national spotlight. It wasn’t long before Orr was giving bear defense tips on Today.
“Bears don’t want to attack people or eat people,” he told Megyn Kelly. “I spent my life out there. I was pretty lucky. It finally caught up to me, but I survived and I’m going to continue.”
In the years since that appearance, Orr has gone on to preach bear attack preparedness to anyone who will listen. He has been a consistent voice for education and awareness.
It’s why he takes part in “Surviving the Grizz” class with Forrest and helps drive home the point that this training is time well spent.
“Being prepared in bear country obviously includes having bear spray that is easily accessible; a firearm close at hand; and, most importantly, having practiced extensively with both,” said Orr.
There’s a rather senseless debate that has bubbled to the surface in some circles that pits these two important tools of the bear safety trade against each other. According to Orr, there is no real debate and it’s simply a distraction from the core issue at hand.
Forrest tackles these issues head on in his classes.
“On the last day, [students] get to practice both non-lethal and lethal deterrents, such as bear spray, marine flares, firearms, electric fences, etc., and compare the effectiveness of each method.”
Beyond taking the time to compare these tools, what does Forrest think most hunters do wrong?
“They never practice with the tools they rely on under stress,” said Forrest.
“I believe it is key to have imagined a bear encounter situation and mentally prepared yourself with how to deal with an encounter and survive it,” added Orr. Forrest’s critique of most bear defense information out there is that experts don’t provide real, tangible advice that anyone can understand.
Practice Until Perfect
The dictionary defines muscle memory as “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.”
In the hysteria of a bear attack, this ability may be your best chance for survival.
During forging, Forrest hopes his training can create heavily myelinated neural pathways—a fancy concept he learned in the SEALS that teaches students “when they practice something intentionally with elements of struggle, they can train their brain for bear defense.”
Forrest tells students that speed is their coach, and the simple use of a stopwatch can be the most effective stimulus response. The stress of a ticking clock makes learning faster and more memorable and eventually leads to muscle memory.
“We train with a target that rushes at you,” said Forrest. “You have to hit the target in the vital area three times in under two seconds at close range. From there, let speed show you where you are deficient. You must shoot the bad guy before he gets you.”
This means practicing this technique with both your handgun and a can of inert training bear spray to refine your setup and, most notably, how you wear these tools and your specific plan to present them.
“Since my attack, I’ve practiced pulling both bear spray and handgun simultaneously and bracing my wrists together with both pointed and ready to discharge either or both,” said Orr.
“The second you see a bear, pull out both and have them ready to go,” said Forrest. “Hike out with both. You can grab the gun with your strong hand and you can then dangle the bear spray in your weak hand from you index finger. It’s all right there, linked together.”
Forrest knows there is a myriad of options for holsters for your pistol and bear spray. There is no one solution on where to mount either, but there is an important concept that will help perfect your setup.
“The biggest thing to understand is your first and second line of gear,” he said. “Your first line is going to be anything essential attached to your body. Always mount your pistol and bear spray on your body. Your second line is your pack, and you don’t want to be separated from your defense tools when you remove your pack.”
How often should you practice with your hunting setup?
“That is completely individual,” said Forrest. “Do it enough so you don’t forget it. Before you go on a mission, you do a dry run. Practice if you can get to your pistol or bear spray in a couple of seconds. Get your practice laps in right before your hunt.”
Beyond all this preparation lies the truth that no matter how much you prepare, sheer will and perseverance can help you overcome the worst-case scenario.
“I used every bit of physical and mental strength I had to remain face down in a protective position through much of the attack, followed by a four-mile hike out in rough terrain,” said Orr, who still shows scars from his 2016 attack.