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To Stop A Grizzly And How Bear Spray Saved A Life

When a grizzly bear charged Keegan David, he had seconds to react. He shared his story with Mountain Journal.

A male grizzly bear makes his way toward Charlie Lansche's camera in Greater Yellowstone. A charging grizzly can reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour and Keegan David found out how quickly he needed to reach and fire his canister of bear spray on May 20. Photo by Charlie M. Lansche
A male grizzly bear makes his way toward Charlie Lansche's camera in Greater Yellowstone. A charging grizzly can reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour and Keegan David found out how quickly he needed to reach and fire his canister of bear spray on May 20. Photo by Charlie M. Lansche

by Joseph T. O’Connor

The sun beat down on his neck as he pushed through shoulder-high sage and branches of white bark pine. Tall Douglas firs threw spots of shade that at this elevation, despite the 82-degree weather, still held small pockets of snow. It wasn’t quite noon, but even in mid-May and high in the Montana mountains, Keegan David was hot. He removed his pack, took a sip of water from a nearby stream, and continued on. “I’m not going to see anybody,” the 33-year-old thought to himself. “I’m not even on a trail.”

David was in high spirits: it was a day off and he was in his element: off trail and deep in the mountains of southcentral Montana, gazing at still-snowcapped peaks of Electric and the state’s highest, Granite, to the east. As he hiked, he made a motion with his right hand to his left hip, where a canister of bear spray hung from his waist in a plastic sleeve. He had been practicing with it for the last year, ever since he lost a hiking friend to a grizzly bear attack not far from where he was today.

Side-hilling on a steep slope of thick sage, David suddenly heard a thundering noise behind him. “It resembled that of a galloping horse,” he says. When he turned around, he saw a massive brown object crashing through the brush toward him: grizzly bear. The bruin was in full gallop, head down, and at 35 yards away it was closing fast. “His claws were as long as my fingers,” David recalls.

“It was a full-on charge and grizzly bears that big can't just stop. He was going like a linebacker in football.”

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Grizzlies are the fastest bears in the Ursidae family, with speeds up to 35 mph, “faster than the top speed of an Olympic sprinter,” reads one article in Popular Science

Born in Petosky, Michigan, Keegan David spent much of his time outside near the lakes and woods of the Upper Peninsula. He first laid eyes on Montana when he was 10 and would spend occasional summers visiting family in the Gallatin Valley, floating the Madison River, learning the mountains and the craft of horn hunting with his cousin. “One of the first places my family brought me was Gardiner, Montana,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to get back out here.”

After graduating from Northern Michigan University with a degree in Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Management, he moved west in 2013 and landed a job near Clyde Park at the Crazy Mountain Ranch. He started in the kitchen, then began teaching off-road driving courses to clients anywhere from 21 years old to 80 in H1 Hummers, he says. A two-year construction job repairing historical structures in Yellowstone National Park followed, and David began spending more and more time outside, hiking, horn hunting and gradually venturing into the wilderness, off trails and away from crowds.

“This is the Treasure State,” he says, “where you're not going to find any treasure on the trail usually, unless it's a bag of dog shit. I love to hike, hunt and pick up horns … I love cruising up into high country someplace that probably nobody's hiked in years, sitting down where there's a nice creek pouring out of the mountains, out of the scree. Maybe there's some 850-year-old Doug fir tree and I sit there and have lunch and just think, ‘Damn, that tree’s been around since before Christopher Columbus even hit the coast.’”
Keegan David and Ziggy stare off into the mountains from their home in Gallatin Gateway. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
Keegan David and Ziggy stare off into the mountains from their home in Gallatin Gateway. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
The morning of May 20 began like many others for David. Now a carpenter for a timber framing company out of Gallatin Gateway, he woke early to make the most of a Saturday off, one with promise and fine weather. His 3-year-old son Riley—middle name Hiker—was with his mother that weekend, and David had loaded his day pack the night before: extra layer, rain jacket, freeze-dried meal and walnuts, .357 magnum, a lighter and a hat. Weather can change quickly in the backcountry, and he planned to hike 10 miles into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness east of Gardiner, Montana.

At a well-used trailhead in the Gardiner Basin, David put his Ford F-150 pickup in park and fished around in the cab behind his seat. He found his pack, a can of bear spray hanging in a plastic holster from the hip belt, and grabbed his hiking poles. He started at the trailhead and after a mile ducked into the brush and off the trail. He was four miles in when he heard the thundering behind him.

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“The forelimbs of grizzly bears support between 54 percent and 60 percent of body weight, increasing with increasing speed.” – Journal of Experimental Biology

Even in the moment, David has a vivid memory of the seconds he watched the bear tearing toward him. Unsure if it was a male or female, he did know it was a grizzly bear weighing more than 300 pounds. “It was a tri-colored grizzly,” he recalls, “huge face, massive shoulders, massive hump on [its] back and a long snout.”

There’s no time to think when a grizzly bear is running at you. At 35 miles per hour, a charging grizzly can cover about 50 feet in a second. In David’s case, he heard the bear and turned when it was approximately 35 yards away and in a full gallop. He had seconds to grab his bear spray, remove the safety and start spraying. His next move was utter reaction, he says. He reached with his right hand to his left hip and tore the bear spray from its breakaway holster.
A backcountry hiker's gear. Photo courtesy Keegan David
A backcountry hiker's gear. Photo courtesy Keegan David
“I didn’t even get the safety all the way off before I started spraying him,” he says. “I had five seconds at the most, otherwise I’d be rolling around on the ground with this goddamned bear.”

David says he was able to spray the charging bear for about three seconds before his mind went black. “He was about 10-12 feet in front of me still full on at a run—at one point he was about five feet from me or less, like an arm's length away—and at that point I don't remember if I tripped or if I dove out of the way at the last second. It all happened so fast. I did sort of black out for sure. It was just all instinct, it was nothing more. Your cells, your eyes, your pupils, just craziness. Total chaos. [I was] just trying to not let that bear get ahold of me. We might even have danced for a second.”

The grizzly had taken the bear spray in the face. David remembers the bear slowed, turned, then shook its head. “It just kind of looked at me and then loped back up the hill. And he definitely wasn't looking very good because his eyes were definitely messed up from that bear spray.”

David believes the type of bear-spray holster he was carrying, called Griz Guard, saved his life. “It has a little three-quarter-of-an-inch slit in it; it's not the standard holster which is like a sleeve-cloth holster. I was able to just rip [the can] out and, to be honest, if I'd had just the regular bear spray in that sleeve, I'm pretty sure that bear would have tackled me.”

The grizzly lumbered back into the sage and trees in the direction it had come. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, David says he had used about 80 percent of his bear spray and thought about the pistol inside his pack. He wondered if the bear would return and knew the gun wouldn’t help. “It's not a pistol for bears, it's just something I keep on me. It's a small .357 [magnum] with 200-grain bullets. It’s not even fully loaded. And I only had four rounds in it.”

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“The [grizzly’s] forelimbs have a net braking effect at all speeds while the hindlimbs provide net propulsion.” – Journal of Experimental Biology

Greater Yellowstone is home to the largest population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 but their exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint. They once roamed the country from Alaska to Mexico, and the population was estimated at more than 50,000 during their peak in the 1800s. Loss of habitat, hunting and other run-ins with humans had slashed their numbers to approximately 1,000 by the time the federal government intervened in 1975 and placed the grizzly on the endangered species list. Experts currently place the U.S. population at around 55,000, and half of those live in Alaska.
In its latest estimate using a new counting method in the demographic monitoring area, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team estimates that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is home to 965 grizzly bears. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
In its latest estimate using a new counting method in the demographic monitoring area, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team estimates that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is home to 965 grizzly bears. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
Until recently, scientists in Greater Yellowstone relied mainly on aircraft to count female bears with cubs in what’s known as the demographic monitoring area, a zone measuring almost 20,000 square miles in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Using this method, scientists with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team estimated 1,069 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2021. But methods change and change again. The most recent report, based on a more advanced scientific method that combines old counting methods with newer ones which the IGBST calls an integrated population model, now puts the estimated number of grizzlies in the monitoring area at 965.

“It's a credible interval in a sense,” says Jeremiah Smith, a bear specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “That could be anything from 800 bears to 1,200 bears. They’re hard critters to count as you can imagine.”

Smith says reported grizzly bear-human encounters in Montana’s portion of the system number average between seven and 10 in a given year, but few result in an actual “spray encounter” or human injury. Or an encounter where a firearm was discharged. But numerous studies indicate that firearms are less effective than bear spray when a bear charges.

In a 2012 study, wildlife ecologist and Brigham Young University professor Thomas Smith found that in 269 human-bear encounters in Alaska, handguns stopped a bear’s “aggressive behavior” about 84 percent of the time, but that the pistols did not prevent injuries in the incidents. “Firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not,” the report says. In an earlier 2008 report, Smith examined 83 bear spray incidents and wrote that 98 percent of the users were uninjured in close-range encounters with bears.

It doesn’t always happen that way. Todd Orr of Bozeman was scouting for elk in the Madison Range east of Ennis in fall 2016 when he was mauled by a grizzly bear. Twice. Orr posted a Facebook video after a sow grizzly—which had cubs—charged him through his bear spray cloud and attacked.

Among other injuries, he suffered a deep gash on his head and ear and puncture wounds to his arm and shoulder. Experts have said that bear spray is effective within about 30 feet and Orr said he started spraying the bear at “about the max distance my spray would reach,” he wrote on his website. “Bear spray doesn’t always work,” he said in the video, “but it’s better than nothing.”

Craig Clouatre, who David knew and had hiked with, was killed in March 2022 by a grizzly bear in Park County near where David had been hiking. An investigation conducted by a group of bear experts and biologists from local, state and federal agencies, and released last month, nine days before David’s encounter, determined that Clouatre’s death was “likely caused by a defensive attack from a nearby denning grizzly bear.”

Investigators found a can of bear spray in Clouatre’s pack on a ridge about a half-mile from the encounter and reported that he had left the pack there at some point before the attack. For David, who had a deep respect for Clouatre as an accomplished mountain climber (“He always outhiked me in the mountains.”), knowing about the 2022 attack may have saved his life.

“It did increase my odds,” David said. “It did change my behavior. Ignorance is not bliss in the wilderness. It is not.”

Having bear spray while you’re hiking is one thing. Knowing where it is on your person and how to use it is quite another. Brad Bolte is a law enforcement officer with the Custer Gallatin National Forest who investigates human-bear encounters.

“I see it all the time where folks pack bear spray but it's in their backpack or it's otherwise inaccessible,” Bolte says. “When you're in a life-or-death situation and
David and the can of bear spray he discharged on May 20 to stop the grizzly bear that charged him. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
David and the can of bear spray he discharged on May 20 to stop the grizzly bear that charged him. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
there’s seconds to react, you’ve got to have that muscle memory to go to that life-saving device and use it properly. The biggest thing is practice. Practice drawing it. Practice figuring out different ways to carry it.”

Bolte likens bear spray to other life-saving tools such as an avalanche beacon. You can have it, he says, even power it on, but if you don’t practice using it you’ll be in trouble when the unthinkable happens.

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"We know now that the grizzly is chock-full of curiosity, and that one of his habits is to follow up any trail that seems to puzzle him or interest him be it of a man or a beast. This trait has been noted and misconstrued by many. So often have I seen this curiosity and proved it to be innocent." –  account from hunter, photographer William H. Wright from The Grizzly, by Enos A. Mills

After the attack, David says, he was standing there, head spinning, eyes burning. He had taken some of the bear spray himself. “My lungs are burning. My eyes are burning. My lips are burning … I’ve just been charged by a bear.”

He knew he needed to get into the open in case the bear returned, so he flung his hiking poles into the sagebrush and clambered to the top of a large rock with 360-degree views. He turned in circles looking for the grizzly. “I’ve got one hand on the pistol and one hand on the bear spray,” he says. “I don't know if there's cubs. I don't even know what just happened. I just know that I'm in his zone and he just made it very clear that he doesn't want me there.”

Keegan David had just enough phone battery left to make three calls after the grizzly charged him: the first was to his friend who is a resident of Gardiner and a hiking buddy with significant backcountry experience. “I knew he would answer,” David says of his former roommate who he calls an “extreme hiker.” “He knew I was in one of three drainages and told me I had to get the hell out of there.”

The second was to his cousin, Mark, who phoned a family friend who knew where David was. “He said, 'Go up the drainage 150 yards, take a right and then get back to your truck and take the trailhead out,' and that's pretty much what I did for the next two hours.”

When he got back to his truck, he drove to the Yellowstone River and sat there for an hour or two watching the water flow by.

David later called Jeremiah Smith, the grizzly bear expert with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Brad Bolte, the law enforcement officer with Custer Gallatin. Smith told Mountain Journal the grizzly’s behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary. Even though David said the grizzly charged him from behind, Smith says it was not acting like a “predatory” bear.
Keegan David places a hand next to the paw print of a grizzly bear. "I cross their tracks but that set was large," he says. Photo courtesy Keegan David
Keegan David places a hand next to the paw print of a grizzly bear. "I cross their tracks but that set was large," he says. Photo courtesy Keegan David
“What I know is that he was able to deploy bear spray to turn a charge which is great,” Smith said. “I'm glad he's OK. And once that was done, this animal did not come back or try to repeat the charge. Typically, in a predatory behavior, that bear is not going to give up, it's going to keep following you around. It's going to follow you down and keep coming at you.”

So, why would the bear charge? David believes it became curious after catching his scent. He had seen grizzlies in the backcountry before but every other time they would run off. “I've often seen them do the same thing that deer and elk do when they see you, but they don't quite believe it until their nose confirms it and then they just bolt the other way.”

Smith agrees, but says sometimes a bear’s curiosity will get the better of it.

“It's in the backcountry, kind of where bears are supposed to be,” Smith says. “Depending on the time of day, they could be sleeping, they could be digging. You can walk right past them. And then all of a sudden the wind shifts. They get a smell, they wake up and they catch movement out of the corner of their eye and they go for it.”

Neither David nor Smith knew if there was an animal carcass in the area, but the U.S. Forest Service typically only closes trailheads if a carcass is on or close to a trail. It’s already happened this spring, and does nearly every spring.

Click the link below to watch Keegan David read from Enos A. Mills' 1919 book, The Grizzly, and provide background related to his grizzly bear encounter.

 
"Grizzlies and wildernesses are risky propositions. As they should be." – Doug Peacock, author of The Essential Grizzly, and Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness

People make mistakes in the backcountry. Occasionally, those mistakes lead to injury or even death. Keegan David says among the mistakes he made were not telling someone exactly where he was going, not hiking with a friend (though he invited two and neither could make it), not having a charged cell phone, and carrying just one can of bear spray. Luckily for him, this time one was enough.

But a number of things were in his favor, as well. He was familiar with the terrain, he knew where his can of bear spray was (on his left hip), and he knew how to use it. Skill and a bit of luck also played key roles.

Following a traumatic situation, victims will sometimes want drastic measures taken. For David, however, grizzlies have a right to be in the wild, where they’ve been for centuries. Currently, the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are looking to have grizzly bears removed from the endangered species list and have bear 
Keegan and his son, Riley Hiker David, hunting horns. Photo courtesy Keegan David
Keegan and his son, Riley Hiker David, hunting horns. Photo courtesy Keegan David
management transferred to the states.

“We’ve manipulated pretty much everything and they really don’t have much space left,” David said. “I go to work every day, I want my kid to be able to grow up and go to a truly wild place. Yeah, there are inherent dangers. You just mitigate the risks and tell people the true story … so they don’t end up in a predicament that they’re not prepared for. [Grizzlies] deserve to be here.”

While his incident left him unscathed physically, it’s not an encounter he’ll soon forget. Keegan David carries the lessons of a close encounter with a grizzly bear.

“Technically … it worked out,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it has kind of scared me out of the mountains for a while, but will I be going back? You’re damned right. Eventually. Will I be even more prepared with two cans of bear spray and a buddy, and somebody knows where I’m going? Yes.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Keegan David is second cousin by marriage to Sarah DeOpsomer, MoJo's Development and Executive Assistant.

For further reading, check out MoJo's in-depth look at grizzly attacks, bear spray, and what you need to know: "To Live or Die in Bear Country: Counting the Seconds in Your Grizzly Moment of Truth"


Joseph T. O'Connor
About Joseph T. O'Connor

Joseph T. O’Connor is Mountain Journal’s Managing Editor. He brings to the team an extensive background in multimedia storytelling including writing, editing, video broadcast and investigative journalism. Joe most recently served as Editor-in-Chief for Mountain Outlaw magazine and the Explore Big Sky newspaper in Big Sky, Montana, and has published work in Newsweek magazine, CNN, Skiing magazine, and in newspapers and magazines from Virginia and Massachusetts to Colorado and California. He moved to Montana in 2012 after taking graduate journalism courses at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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