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To Live Or Die In Bear Country: Counting The Seconds In Your Grizzly Moment Of Truth

Mountain Journal's In-Depth Look At Grizzly Attacks, Bear Spray, And What You Need To Know

Bear spray has been a reliable game-changing invention in keeping grizzlies and people alive.
Bear spray has been a reliable game-changing invention in keeping grizzlies and people alive.

Set the timer on your cell phone stopwatch to six seconds. Now click and begin the countdown.  

As the notion goes, if this were the amount of time your hand was placed in a pot of boiling water or, for purposes of this story, your skull or other body part clenched in the jaws of a grizzly bear, it would seem, possibly, an eternity.  But think how fast it just passed by.

A world-class human sprinter, running 21.7 miles per hour, can cover 60 yards—180 feet—in roughly that time—six seconds.

A charging grizzly can reach a speed of around 30 miles an hour and at full gait that translates into about 44 feet per second.

Do the calculation for how how long it might take a bruin, a mother, say, worried that you represent a hazard to her cubs. She's being understandably protective, closing the distance of half a football field—or closer— quickly.

Heighten the urgency of the equation by putting yourself in the picture—on the potential receiving end of a mauling—with literally a moment to react as space between you and bear narrows. 

Will the bruin hurtling toward you halt? Continue to advance? Pull up short in a bluff charge? What are its intentions? Should you stand your ground?  Drop to the earth and brace? Or reach for a holster, extract what’s in it like a Hollywood gunfighter and begin firing? 

Can you really keep your cool, take aim in six seconds—and what if you miss? Can you pull the can of bear spray out of its holster, dislodge the safety, and pull the trigger?

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Here is a fact confirmed by scientific studies and statistics: There are a lot of hunters who have gotten hurt badly, or killed, based on the belief they were sure shots. And they have needlessly wounded or killed a lot of bears. Hundreds over the last few decades; over a couple of generations a number high enough to replace the entire population—about 700— that miraculously persists in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem today.

A much much smaller number of people—and bears—have ever been injured when bear spray is involved. Nine out of ten times, when bear spray has been successfully deployed, people and bears do not die, researchers say.
Photo by Chuck Bartlebaugh
Photo by Chuck Bartlebaugh

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During a meeting one year ago in Missoula, Montana, something extraordinary happened. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, the government entity comprising federal and state agencies involved in the management of grizzlies in the northern Rockies, rescinded the long-standing “six-second rule” when it comes to suggested requirements for the amount of time it takes for a can of bear spray to empty.

To the uninformed, “bear spray” is the non-lethal deterrent many hikers and hunters carry to thwart bruin attacks or to confront bears behaving in defense-driven incidents. Another salient fact worth noting to debunk the myth of the Old West—the vast, vast, vast majority of grizzlies do not view humans as prey. The vast, vast, vast majority of close encounters with people involve bears that are: 1. instinctively engaging a perceived threat to cubs; 2. surprise encounters when they can't smell, see or hear us as we amble into them, as when they are feeding on a carcass, in a berry patch, walking along a river when there's a lot of white noise from rushing water, or sleeping in their day beds.

The vast, vast, vast majority of encounters, in terms of what provokes them, are more Revenant (based on accidental run-in) than Night of the Grizzlies and, like in Revenant, made worse for Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, because he fought back, experts say.

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In September 2017, a hunter from Rock Springs, Wyoming was mauled by a sow grizzly that he apparently surprised in the Teton Wilderness east of Jackson Hole. He had bear spray in his backpack and a rifle but the attack happened so fast he didn’t have time to respond. Two of his hunting companions then fired shots to scare away the bear. 

While the primary concern, of course, was for the well-being of the hunter (whose injuries were non-life-threatening), there was also concern that his companions might have shot famous Grizzly 399, her adult female cub 610 or another sow with cubs nicknamed “Blondie.”

In October, Chris Queen, an off-duty game warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department shot and killed a sow grizzly (which had three cubs) that he claimed attacked him while he was hunting in Little Sunlight Basin northwest of Cody.  He told authorities the mother bear initiated a bluff charge. After the bruin returned to her cubs, she apparently worried for their safety and ran at Queen at full speed.  He raised his rifle and dropped the bear a few feet from where he was standing. The Cody Enterprise newspaper reported that Queen "was forced to kill the bear." An investigation into the circumstances is ongoing but certainly one of the questions will be: Why did Queen resort to bullets and not bear spray?.

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For those who don’t know what bear spray is, forget bug repellent and whatever you do, don't call it "pepper spray"; think of it as being akin to a specially-concocted, far more potent and longer emitting form of Mace (carried by urban joggers and others for self defense against menacing people/pit bulls in cities) but designed specifically to halt the biggest apex omnivore in the Lower 48.

As far as keeping people and bears alive when their paths collide, bear spray has been a radical game-changing invention over the last quarter century. In many profound ways, it has been as important as the banning of sport hunting of bears, and harsh penalties enforced by law enforcement, prosecutors and judges against outlaw poachers and the destruction of bear habitat including the construction of roads and trails into their havens, as well as the successful virtuous campaign of cleaning up the way Homo sapiens uses and disposes of its food and trash.
Scientists found that bear spray was 92 percent effective in deterring attacks from the three species of North American bears—brown, black and polar— in Alaska between 1985 and 2006; 98 percent of people carrying bear spray who got into close encounters with bears were uninjured.
Prior to bear spray’s arrival, lots of grizzlies were killed by people with firearms, some based on dubious excuses of self-defense. For whatever reason bullets were responsible, bear deaths represented a major challenge for wildlife managers trying to pull back grizzly populations in the Lower 48 states (in Greater Yellowstone and the Glacier/Crown of the Continent ecosystem) from the brink of extirpation.

Bear spray, according to extensive research and expert opinion, has proved itself to be more effective and reliable than bullets. Dr. Tom Smith is the reigning guru of studying bear attacks. He is based at Brigham Young University and the author of  a couple of seminal studies, including the causes of bear attacks in Alaska and how they culminated.

Smith says brown bears inflicted more injuries than any other species in Alaska. The average brown bear encounter is more dangerous—3.5 times more likely to result in injury—than the average polar bear encounter, and 21 times more dangerous than the average black bear encounter.  This is the opinion of both Smith and colleague Dr. Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Canada and legendary author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.

I wrote a series of stories about bear attacks for National Geographic that followed in the wake of a fatal hiker mauling and the decision to kill the bear in Yellowstone.

I had a couple of long visits with Smith. In a 2008 analysis carried out by Smith, Herrero and colleagues, scientists found that bear spray was 92 percent effective in deterring attacks from the three species of North American bears—brown, black and polar— in Alaska between 1985 and 2006. Ninety-eight percent of people carrying bear spray who got into close encounters with bears were uninjured. The study that Smith and Herrero authored—truly fascinating wonky reading—can be found here.

Smith and Herrero more recently completed another exhaustive review titled “A Brief Summary of Bear-Human Interactions in Alaska: 1883-2014.” In it, they raked through 647 different incidents involving the state’s three species, based on incident reports, eyewitness statements and other available information.
A huge number of attacks happened not at night but between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Some 51 percent of attacks were over in less than 3 minutes, and 79 percent were over in less than 10 minutes. Although some attacks lasted longer because victims tried to fight the bear and did not submit, occasionally, they said, putting up resistance is the only way to save your life.
More than 40 percent of all human encounters were the result of people surprising them, and most “could have been avoided had the persons involved made noise appropriately, to let the bear know of their presence in advance of their appearance, thus avoiding conflict,” Smith, Herrero and colleagues found.

The stealthy techniques that hunters employ in moving through brushy areas with low visibility are exactly opposite from the kind of behavior that makes for safer navigation of bear country.

Their review found that in 52 percent of all close encounters with bears over the last 125 years, no one was injured. Yet when injury did occur, people tended to sustain wounds to their head and neck 4.5 times more often than other parts of the body.

“Interestingly, in over 125 years of records we have found only eight polar bear incidents,” Smith told me “That says something about the reluctance to engage or conflict with humans. Yes, polar bears are often labeled ‘stalker-killers’ of man."

“Do you think they [polar bears] have earned the title? I certainly do not, though a few incidents have occurred,” Smith said.

In terms of how often a certain species is involved in conflicts with people, it breaks down this way: grizzly bears account for 84 percent of encounters, black bears 14 percent and polar bears 2 percent.

Some other take-homes:

• Incidents involving carcass-defending bears are highest in spring, a time when they would expect bears to be feeding on the remains of animals that died during the winter.

• In just 8 percent of all encounters examined, bears appeared to perceive humans as food “and were attempting to procure them as such.”

Even though black bears outnumber grizzlies 3-to-1 in and around Alaska’s largest human population centers of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, they are not nearly as aggressive as grizzly bears, whose aggressiveness and temperament sometimes cause them to confront people the same way they would other bears they perceived to be a threat.

In Alaska an “increase in bear encounters closely parallels the increase in human population over time. In fact, the correlation between the two is very high.” They noted that even though the number of people living in the bush has declined, they surmise that increasing conflict is owed to a rising surge of outdoor recreation in all its forms.

A huge number of attacks happened not at night but between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Some 51 percent of attacks were over in less than 3 minutes, and 79 percent were over in less than 10 minutes. Although some attacks lasted longer because victims tried to fight the bear and did not submit, occasionally, they said, putting up resistance is the only way to save your life.

Each time he objectively dives deeper into the data Smith becomes more firmly convinced of bear spray’s effectiveness.

While it may indeed be macho to sit in a saloon and speak with bluster about gratuitously blowing a grizzly away with a rifle or sidearm, it's dangerous, risky, and can be illegal if proved to be unjustified.  For those who still insist upon reviling bears, the federal government, the Endangered Species Act and/or environmentalists, keeping grizzlies alive prevents them from having to be relisted and, as the popularity of bear-watching shows, they are worth far more alive to the regional economy than dead.

Besides, touting guns as the first option of choice detracts from the personal responsibility people need to exert while traveling through grizzly country, be they recreationists or hunters stalking elk and deer or field dressing an animal.  Read Part 1 in this series, Lessons From A Hunter Twice Attacked By A Grizzly Bear that highlighted an investigation into another bear attack in the Madison Mountains.

The short video here describes an encounter between a grizzly sow and cubs and young scientific field researchers in Yellowstone National Park who had to deploy bear spray.
A couple of summers ago, Yellowstone launched its "A Bear Doesn't Care...." campaign. The slogan features several high-profile individuals and notes that a grizzly doesn't care if you are a famous actor (Jeff Bridges), world-class mountaineer (Conrad Anker), an angling guru (Craig Mathews) or even if you've been attacked before (Jeff Brown) in deciding whether to charge. You need to be ready, smart and prepared.

Bozeman mountaineer Conrad Anker, known for summiting Everest and other peaks around the world (including being featured in the film Meru with Jimmy Chin and  Renan Ozturk) is one of the famous faces in "A Bear Doesn't Care..."  Click on photo to enlarge
Bozeman mountaineer Conrad Anker, known for summiting Everest and other peaks around the world (including being featured in the film Meru with Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk) is one of the famous faces in "A Bear Doesn't Care..." Click on photo to enlarge
The overwhelming majority of bear encounters do not involve conflict. There is an average of one bear attack per year in Yellowstone. In separate incidents in 2011 and 2015, three people were killed by bears inside the park. More people, meanwhile, have died or been injured by drowning or suffering thermal burns from hot springs, or getting gored by bison than from aggressive bears.

"A Bear Doesn't Care" came in response to the realization by park superintendent Dan Wenk and his bear management staff led by Kerry Gunther that not enough visitors had bear spray with them. A survey showed that just 28 percent of people coming through the gate carried a can with them. Today, visitors can rent bear spray from park concessionaires.

“Yellowstone visitors care deeply about preserving bears and observing them in the wild,” says Kerry Gunther, the park’s Bear Management Specialist. “Carrying bear spray is the best way for visitors to participate in bear conservation because reducing potential conflicts protects both people and bears.”

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At its annual end of year meeting in 2016, the grizzly bear committee voted to abandon the six-second rule based upon a request from a lawyer representing a bear spray brand called UDAP, founded by Montana bear attack survivor Mark Matheny, who was badly-injured while on an archery hunt in Montana in September 1992.

UDAP had argued in June 2016 that the six-second rule gave, essentially, preferential treatment to another, older bear-spray brand, Counter Assault, that, in the eyes of some, has been considered the reliable gold standard for bear sprays.

Engineered by Vietnam veteran Bill Pounds and developed with research insights gleaned by the late Chuck Jonkel and Carrie Hunt—herself today an internationally-recognized trainer of bear dogs used to protect people—Counter Assault had five principal priorities in the beginning. One was to reduce the number of lethal outcomes for both humans and bears and serve as an alternative to guns. A second was to have a proven chemical composition capable of thwarting a charging bear by temporarily disabling its senses of smell, taste, and sight and causing non permanent impairment. Another was having an easy to use dispensary-system holding enough spray to last for at least seven seconds to give a human user enough time to start spraying long before a bear was merely feet away. A fourth priority was projecting a forceful cloud of atomized spray that would remain suspended in the air, essentially creating a misty fog that a bear had to pass through before it reached you.

The final goal—the principle one—was to achieve dividends for long-term grizzly conservation.

Carrie Hunt has trained Karelian bear dogs (KBDs), a European breed, that have proved effective in chasing grizzlies away from developed areas. Some use them for personal protection when working in areas where bears are present. These dogs can also repel bears from entering yards where people are raising chickens behind fences.  
Other kinds of dogs are used by herders to ward off bears, coyotes and dissuade wolves.

Not long ago the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the conviction of a Montana man who shot three grizzlies with a .22 for getting into his chicken coop outside Ferndale (near Bigfork). The court sent it back to a lower court for a new trial but many are incredulous that three grizzlies should die for getting into chickens.

It must be noted that the advent of specially-trained dogs used to protect people and livestock from grizzlies—and combined with more responsible management protocols adopted by livestock producers—have been game changing in reducing conflicts. Hunt and her contemporaries have been part of a two-front revolution in promoting co-existence between people and wildlife predators that, in a less-informed age, used to simply be targeted for eradication or treated with nothing but intolerance.

° ° °

Counter Assault emerged from tests done on captive bears at Fort Missoula in Montana. Years later, in 2008, the then-head of the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team Charles Schwartz, led an investigation into bear spray's efficacy.

Let’s make it clear here for those urban New Yorkers and Los Angeleans who might be reading this and making naive assumptions: bear spray as a repellent is not applied like mosquito repellent or sun tan lotion to your own skin.

Think of it as a giant can of hair spray but filled with stuff that can knock out a bear’s ability to use its olfactory (smelling) system, which is vital to its confidence in confronting a perceived threat. And if you make the mistake of dousing yourself, it makes your eyes burn and water, causing you to wheeze and gasp for breath. It makes you focus on thinking of nothing else except making the extreme discomfort go away. When it has the same effect on a grizzly, which it does, that means that a charging bear forgets about making you a focal point.
Bear spray crusader Chuck Bartlebaugh putting on a demonstration to show approximate distances for when to start pulling on the trigger of a can.
Bear spray crusader Chuck Bartlebaugh putting on a demonstration to show approximate distances for when to start pulling on the trigger of a can.

As the oldest major bear spray brand (it has been the brand of choice for many bear researchers) and considering Jonkel’s long-standing role in advancing bear conservation, Counter Assault set, in a de-facto way, the high bar for what other bear sprays ought to do.

Before Counter Assault could go to market, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed testing on the ingredients to insure they did not permanently harm people and bruins. The agency handed down requirements that all cans hold at least 7.9 ounces of chemicals. A few years after Counter Assault was developed, Matheny got mauled. (He was not carrying the big can of Counter Assault). The product he subsequently developed, UDAP, emerged and it was forced to meet the same standards established by EPA.

A can of Counter Assault casts a spray that lasts between 7.2 and 9.2 seconds. UDAP offers three different sizes of bear spray. Two of those UDAP products, comparable in size to Counter Assault, emit a spray with a duration of around four seconds for one and 5.4 seconds for the other.

While such data might seem wonky and inconsequential, those involved with bear spray say otherwise. They claim that every second matters and so does the intensity of the disorienting agents coming out of a can.

What the bear committee change means, in layperson’s terms, is that no longer do they suggest cans of spray hold enough repellent that, when the trigger is squeezed, guarantees a continuous blast of ingredients lasting at least six seconds.

The two different can sizes of Counter Assault:;  8.1 fluid ounces with a spray that last seven seconds, and 10.2 ounces with a spray that lasts 9.2 seconds. The spray  has a range of between 12 and 30 feet.
The two different can sizes of Counter Assault:; 8.1 fluid ounces with a spray that last seven seconds, and 10.2 ounces with a spray that lasts 9.2 seconds. The spray has a range of between 12 and 30 feet.
This unexpected move was shocking to Chuck Bartlebaugh, who, more than any other person in the U.S., has been a bear spray evangelist, a tenacious crusader trying to educate the masses about why bear spray has worked in reducing the number of maulings.

Bartlebaugh points in particular to the investigations of Smith, Herrero and colleagues. In one paper, Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, they wrote: "Some people have been reluctant to rely on bear spray for protection. We believe several reasons contribute to their reluctance. Chief among these is the notion that bear sprays are too weak to dissuade curious or aggressive bears from approaching people. Additionally, some people believe that wind can easily render sprays ineffective and that wind-driven spray may incapacitate the user."

“Most of the public out there, especially people travelling from urban areas to Yellowstone or Glacier, aren’t that familiar with bear spray and how it works,” Bartlebaugh, who started the non-profit Be Bear Aware, told me. “They don’t know there are different brands and they certainly don’t know there is a big difference between Mace, pepper spray, and bear spray. And they don’t know that even if you have bear spray, unless you’re able to extract it in seconds, it’s of little use.”

Bartlebaugh added: “Being well armed with knowledge is the greatest asset for safe travel in grizzly country. Being ignorant is dangerous.”

In general, bear spray has been spectacularly effective and while he stops short of suggesting Counter Assault is superior to UDAP, Bartlebaugh says this: “Every split second you can buy yourself when faced with a charging grizzly matters. You can cram 7.9 ounces of chemical ingredients into a can and meet EPA requirements but what makes the difference is how it is dispensed.”

Bartlebaugh said that decades ago when Bill Pounds went before the bear committee, he asked how many seconds a can of bear spray should last. The reply that came from Chris Servheen [the now retired national grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] and others was “at least seven seconds” and “the longer the better.”

Here's the link to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Guidelines for bear sprays back in 1999. The controversy has actually been raging for years, involving a number of arguments, including one that EPA should mandate requirements for the distance bear spray can fire. Some sympathize with Matheny.

Read the comments to a discussion by retired Idaho State University professor and conservationist Dr. Ralph Maughan at The Wildlife News a decade ago under the heading "Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to look at claim it unintentionally endorses Counter Assault."

Matheny, whom I've known for decades and interviewed him when UDAP first came on the market, comes across as a sincere man. He and UDAP have been involved in a fierce competition for market share with Counter Assault, with some outdoor gear retailers only carrying one brand or the other. The photo of Matheny’s bloody face, snapped after his fateful encounter with a grizzly down Montana’s Gallatin Canyon, became his attention-grabbing calling card in stores.

When Bartlebaugh—whom I’ve also known for 20 years—called me in the wake of the bear committee decision in late 2016, he was incredulous mostly because he believes the move sends a confusing message to a mostly uninformed public. That message is that people, when navigating bear country, can now let down their guard a bit.

The EPA’s permit approval process for bear spray addresses toxicity of ingredients and amount of ingredients in a can; it does not deal with the intricacies of how it is deployed, for example, in proscribing how far the fog of spray is projected. Nor have EPA regulators dispatched personnel into the field to stand in the face of charging bears and assess which product works best.

UDAP offers its own version of "magnum-strength" bear spray. One has 7.9 ounces and another 13.4 ounces.
UDAP offers its own version of "magnum-strength" bear spray. One has 7.9 ounces and another 13.4 ounces.
Frank van Manen, who oversees the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team today, a research unit with the U.S. Geological Survey based in Bozeman and whose staff has had thousands upon thousands of contact hours with wild grizzlies, told me the bear committee did not want to be in a position where it was perceived to be endorsing one bear spray brand over another.  “There’s something to be said for manufacturers themselves specifying best use of their own product rather than an organization like the IGBC being overly prescriptive on what the criteria should be,” Van Manen said, noting that the IGBC doesn’t have the resources to function in a regulatory capacity like EPA.

Bartlebaugh says federal and state agencies and hunting and conservation groups have done a poor job of educating the public about bear spray, particularly how to deploy it. He cites a number of recent incidents in which bear attacks occurred and human victims couldn't get cans out of their holsters or backpacks or didn't have time to flick off the plastic safety. If he had his druthers, effective use of bear spray would be a mandatory part of hunters' safety courses that kids must complete before being allowed to go afield in griz country with guns. And he would require all hikers to carry it.  BYU's Smith says that if not a legal requirement then it ought to be considered an ethical one.
Bartlebaugh cites a number of recent incidents in which bear attacks occurred and human victims couldn't get cans out of their holsters or backpacks or didn't have time to flick off the plastic safety. If he had his druthers, effective use of bear spray would be a mandatory part of hunters' safety courses in states that kids must complete before being allowed to go afield in griz country with guns. And he would require all hikers to carry it.
"I've interviewed many hunters and it's amazing they don't even know the brand they are carrying," Bartlebaugh said in an earlier Mountain Journal story on the findings of a mauling involving hunter Todd Orr. "And some think the spray in their cans lasts for 60 seconds or 30 seconds. Some don't realize that given the size of the can it will only actually spray for four seconds."

Matheny believed the IGBC’s six-second rule gave Counter Assault an unfair advantage. Bartlebaugh, however, says the suggested IGBC recommendation was based on observed bear behavior, not as a marketing ploy to benefit Counter Assault.

In an interview after the bear committee rescinded the 6-second rule, Matheny told me, "As a grizzly bear attack survivor, I believe that in a bear attack you want to have a high-volume spray. Studies show that in most cases you have less than 2 seconds to react before the bear reaches you. It’s not a matter of how long the can sprays in a constant duration. Bear spray is designed to be deployed in repeated bursts of spray. It’s more about being prepared and knowing how to operate your spray and following the manufacturer’s instructions on the label. To get more spray in seconds does not make a can have more spray. High volume bear spray works."

UDAP offers three sizes of bear spray: a can with 7.9 ounces of repellent that sprays for approximately 4 seconds; a 9.2-ounce can that lasts for 5.4 seconds; and a hefty 13.4-ounce can with a continuous spray of 7 seconds. Based upon his research of bear attacks, Bartlebaugh says four seconds is way too short. He asserts that bigger cans, which can forcefully project a spray with greater carry, provide a better cushion.

“My recommendation is that when a charging bear gets within 60 feet, the user should start spraying for 2 to 3 seconds so a cloud is 30 feet out when the bear gets there and enters the cloud. You don’t worry about aiming at the face, the eyes or nose. You just get that cloud out there.  In many incidents previously reported in newspapers, bears that encountered the fog would break off their charge," Bartlebaugh says.

He is an absolute stickler on this point: "People going into the backcountry or any area where grizzlies live need to be taught to use bear spray faster when it approaches and not wait for the bear to get close. I'm not talking about spraying when it's 200 yards away. We also have instructors telling people to wait until the bear is 10 feet way, 20 feet away and 30 feet away before spraying. But with the speed of a charging grizzly that's too close. If you can begin spraying when the bear is within 60 feet and coming toward you, do it. Just spray downward and get the cloud of spray between you and the bear. Don't wait to spray the bear in the eyes and nose like you would when using pepper spray on a parking lot mugger."  
When deploying bear spray in the direction of a charging grizzly, aim lower rather than higher, experts like Chuck Bartlebaugh say. Tilt the can downward in the direction of the bear so that the ingredients atomize in the air and rise, creating a wall (rather than spraying over the top of the bear).  Do it sooner rather than wait until a bear is mere feet away.  And make sure you have a good grip on the can.  Hold with two hands if necessary.
When deploying bear spray in the direction of a charging grizzly, aim lower rather than higher, experts like Chuck Bartlebaugh say. Tilt the can downward in the direction of the bear so that the ingredients atomize in the air and rise, creating a wall (rather than spraying over the top of the bear). Do it sooner rather than wait until a bear is mere feet away. And make sure you have a good grip on the can. Hold with two hands if necessary.
He also harps on this point: Don't carry bear spray in a backpack; keep it at a place where it is at the ready and easily accessible; make sure you can dislodge the safety and in some settings have it in your hands. Know that bears in bear country can be anywhere. "It's not uncommon for bears to not be seen because they’re in thick brush or laying in day beds or suddenly appear from closer distances," he says. "In those cases you spontaneously spray toward the bear, the stream of the spray tilted slightly downward, and keep spraying until it breaks off its charge or you decide to go to the ground and lay flat.”

Sometimes, there can be more than one bear in an area as in the case of hikers moving through berry patches and stumbling upon a carcass where multiple bears are feeding. “Other variables are that if you have rain or a headwind or side-wind, the spray can get blown out of the bear’s path, so you better have enough reserve,” Bartlebaugh says. “And, if you’re only carrying one can, you should have a little left for the hike out should the bear happen to return as it did with the 2016 attack on Todd Orr in the Madison Mountains.”

It's also important that everyone hiking into bear country have a can of spray. There have been instances in which a bear attacked two people and one of the hikers, who was carrying a can, couldn't remove the safety before the bear was on them.

I spoke with Gary Moses, who spent nearly 30 years as a ranger in both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, each known for their grizzly populations. He was involved with teams that reviewed the causes of several bear attacks.

Moses has served as product ambassador for Counter Assault to help with its public education initiatives. He notes that the duration of bear spray is important because people, when forced to take quick action when confronted by a grizzly, will sometimes deploy bear spray too soon and press down on the trigger until the can is empty.

But he worries that people might empty the can too soon if a bear is at a distance. “Their initial deployment is for a lot longer than they think and they spray the entire contents is one burst,” he says. “It is really important that, for bear spray to be most effective, you get a concentrated dose into the space of the animal. If you use up your can at 25 to 30 feet and have nothing left, that’s when there can be problems. Bear spray works when properly deployed. But ask anyone who’s been attacked by a bear and they’ll invariably say, ‘They wish their can of product had been able to spray longer.”

In 2016, one of Moses' close friends, a mountain biker, was killed when peddling at high speed down a trail, ran into a grizzly.

Moses notes there’s a question he receives more than any other. “It might be a trail runner, jogger, mountain biker, or walker who lives near bear habitat. They want to know what I suggest for carrying the smallest and least-expensive can of bear spray possible and, as a result, they confuse personal defense pepper spray, which comes in small cans, with bear spray.”

His reply: bigger cans filled with more content that spray for longer, are always better.  

Moses and Bartlebaugh worry that recreationists in grizzly country might interpret the abandonment of the six-second rule as a reason to be less vigilant. Counter Assault has really tried to reach hunters, as demonstrated by this video collaboration with the well-known sportsman Craig Boddington.

Van Manen says the advantages of bear spray, as a class of non-lethal weapon, are clear and unequivocal.

“There are reasons why bear spray should be the first choice for anybody recreating in bear country,” he says, pointing to Smith’s research in Alaska that showed bear spray to be 92 percent effective in deterring attacks by grizzly, black and polar bears.

In contrast, there was 84 percent success with people who used handguns and a 76 percent success rate with long-guns. Firearms also had a high risk of injury in dealing with a wounded bear. An analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled "Bear Spray vs. Bullets: Which Offers Better Protection" noted that based on investigations of bear attacks going back to 1992, persons confronting bears and defending themselves with firearms got injured 50 percent of the time. "During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries," the review stated.
Horse people drag a dead grizzly that was killed by elk hunters claiming self defense inside Grand Teton National Park.  It's annual "elk reduction program" is the only big game hunt that occurs inside a national park and is very controversial.  That grizzlies might be shot and killed by elk hunters inside Grand Teton at all has prompted some conservationists to sue to stop the hunt. Grand Teton officials today require all hunters to carry bear spray. Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
Horse people drag a dead grizzly that was killed by elk hunters claiming self defense inside Grand Teton National Park. It's annual "elk reduction program" is the only big game hunt that occurs inside a national park and is very controversial. That grizzlies might be shot and killed by elk hunters inside Grand Teton at all has prompted some conservationists to sue to stop the hunt. Grand Teton officials today require all hunters to carry bear spray. Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)

"When it comes to self defense against grizzly bears, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt. Evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death of the human or the bear," the overview noted. "The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun.

Another danger with choosing firearms, van Manen notes, is that shooters have sometimes inadvertently shot themselves or their backcountry companions. “Nobody gets seriously injured or hurt when they misfire using bear spray,” he said.

For Bartlebaugh, bear spray has yet to achieve its full promise which is keeping more people and grizzlies alive on the landscape. “The first major victory in reducing bear mortality was the advent of bear spray, which was huge,” he says. “But the real triumph will be when a much higher percentage of people, especially hunters, actually carry it and know how to use it effectively.”

Now with grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem removed from federal protection, he is concerned that gains which have been made in keeping bears, especially females of reproducing age alive, could reverse course if non-lethal conflict resolution does not continue to be emphasized and taught to the masses entering the woods.

EDITOR'S NOTE: No bears or people were injured in the making of our lead image. Photo at top is a composite featuring a screen shot photograph of a video featuring renowned sportsman Craig Boddington enlisted to create an educational video on bear spray for the public Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. The grizzly head was added. Graphic by MoJo Associate Editor of Content Angus O'Keefe.

Two videos below: The first is produced by National Geographic and features an interview with bear attack survivor Nic Patrick who runs a ranch along the South Fork of the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyoming. Patrick imparts sage wisdom about living in grizzly country.

The second is one produced by UDAP that features conversations with bear attack victims Todd Orr and Mark Matheny and features a demonstration on bear spray use.
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Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition of asking hard questions and pressing for honest answers. For more on his career, click below.
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