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Lessons Learned From A Hunter Attacked Twice By A Grizzly Bear

The Incident Involving Todd Orr In The Madison Mountains Offers Insights

Throughout the northern Rockies, we are presently amid another big game rifle season occurring within grizzly country.  

With more hunters in the woods and bears in the physical condition known as hyperphagia, when they are trying to consume as much as they can to get them through five-month hibernation that commences soon, conflicts often rise. In fact, as a percentage of bear deaths caused by elk and deer hunters during the autumn, "accidental" kills and those attributed to "self defense" account for a significant amount of the toll.

It's one of the reasons why, with grizzlies now removed from federal protection and their management handed over to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, there is huge concern among conservationists that bear deaths could rise and the courts respond with attitudes of leniency—treating grizzly deaths no more severely than those accidentally shoot or poach a deer.

It's a worry gone supernova with states like Wyoming aggressively moving forward to re-start sport hunting of grizzlies after a 42-year-span in which it has been outlawed. It is accompanied by the claim it could result in popular bruins that spend much of their lives in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks getting killed in the national forests and law enforcement officials treating such killings as no big deal.

A major issue is how to reduce needless lethality in human interactions with grizzlies, particularly among hunters who, in stealthily stalking their prey, break almost every rule of safe travel in grizzly country. Hikers are educated to make their presence known and predictable on the trail. Hunters go off trail, deliberately skulk, sometimes use calls and scents to lure their quarry in, and then gut and field dress their animals. Sometimes, even their gunshots train bears to think a free elk dinner is being served.

Why does bear spray matter?  Equally as important is how should it be deployed?

When Montana hunter Todd John Orr was attacked twice by a grizzly bear on October 1, 2016, the mauling, thanks to social media and the victim carrying a video camera, captured instant attention from around the world.

To date, tens of millions of views have been notched of the bloodied sportsman from Bozeman via Facebook and YouTube. Many people are astonished how a badly-wounded Orr, after walking three miles out of the backcountry, had the wherewithal and composure to do an interview with himself before seeking medical attention.

One of those who saw the video, Chuck Bartlebaugh, became gravely concerned about the message being communicated to the masses as news of the incident circulated virally, accompanied by media reports which were, in some cases, sensationalistic, if not horrendously misleading and demonizing of grizzlies.

Bartlebaugh, founder of a campaign called Be Bear Aware, specializing in educating the public about using bear spray, decided to turn gumshoe detective of sorts.  He interviewed the 50-year-old Orr seeking answers to a pair of key questions:  Did the bear spray Orr carried with him work?  And, two, why did the grizzly attack him twice?

After an investigation, Bartlebaugh released his findings and presented them a year ago to Gregg Losinski, chairman of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee at its annual year-end meeting in Missoula, Montana.

The basic facts are these: In early October 2016, Orr had been out hiking solo, scouting for elk, in the North Fork of Bear Creek on the western face of the Madison mountains in southwest Montana. 

Figuring grizzlies were probably in the area, he told Bartlebaugh that he had shouted “Hey Bear!” to let his presence be known. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an agitated sow grizzly about 80 yards away stood up and charged.

The mother with cubs disappeared momentarily in trees before the protective adult bruin re-emerged 50 yards away bearing down on Orr.  The hunter was carrying two cans of bear spray.  He clutched one and started blasting the spray in the direct

“The grizzly bear ran right through the cloud of bear spray. Just moments before contact, Mr. Orr turned and dropped to a fetal position on the ground to protect his face, neck and vital organs,” Bartlebaugh writes.  “Mr. Orr believes that he had less than 10 percent of the bear spray in his can after he had dispersed it.”

Bartlebaugh shared a few theories in his report on why the normally-effective non-lethal deterrent didn’t work: “Mr. Orr waited to spray the charging bear until it was 25 feet away. At this distance, the grizzly bear (traveling at approximately 30 miles per hour) met the bear spray cloud somewhere between 10 and 20 feet. This is only two tenths of a second away from contact. The grizzly bear would have had less than a half a second to feel the effects and divert its charge.”

Bartlebaugh continued: “[Orr] described aiming for the bear’s face. The National Rifle Association (NRA) states that ‘aiming’ takes just less than one second for an experienced person to do. Bear spray was designed to be dispersed in a powerful, well-atomized and expanding cloud to eliminate the need for aiming. In a charging situation, do not waste time trying to aim – it’s one second you may not have.”

For years, Bartlebaugh has been teaching proper use of bear spray to thousands of people, including employees of natural resource agencies and the general public. He tells people that it’s vitally important to emit a dense atomized cloud as soon as possible when a bear is charging forward and to angle it downward towards the front of the bear so the mist lifts up.

Important is that a can hold enough spray to project and maintain an expanding cloud to ensure a bear encounters it before it is mere feet away.  Essential is that there be enough left in the can to thwart a potential additional advance of a bruin or bruins.
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As Orr dropped and curled into the fetal position, the grizzly bit into his scalp, ear, shoulder and arms, then left the scene.

“Mr. Orr did not lie flat, which has been the recommended procedure for the past twenty years, but instead curled up into a ball giving the bear more of a target to maul,” Bartlebaugh writes.  “This is another scenario demonstrating how the public is not properly informed in regards to knowing what to do if being mauled or attacked by a bear.”

Rather than curling into the fetal position, the latest suggestions from the National Park Service and others is to lay flat, belly down, with backpack still on your back, and cover one’s head with hands.

The fact that the bear left the scene suggests it was dealing with the effects of bear spray in its eyes, mouth, nose and lungs. As Orr got up, he told Bartlebaugh, he saw the sow and cubs running away up a mountain slope.

Orr headed in the other direction but five to ten minutes later as he was hiking down a trail, the sow reappeared, probably having turned around because the terrain was too steep to climb. It put the sow on a collision course with Orr. “Because the bear appeared behind him,” Bartlebaugh notes, “Mr. Orr did not have time to retrieve his second can of bear spray he needed to defend himself.”

This time the grizzly was just 30 feet away and on him in a split second. “The bear began to maul him for the second time. Mr. Orr responded to the pain by flinching and gasping for breath, which brought on even more aggressive biting and clawing from the grizzly,” Bartlebaugh reports. “He determined his best bet was to remain as still as possible and stay quiet. The grizzly then stopped, stood up on top of him, and then just like she did the first time, she was suddenly gone.”

The bear could have killed him if she had wanted. Bartlebaugh shares two thoughts, one praising of Orr. “It’s one thing to say ‘remain still and quiet’ but it’s a whole different story when it comes to actually doing it. Mr. Orr did a remarkable job of this, and it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.”

He adds, “It should be noted that at this point, Mr. Orr’s first bear spray was nearly empty. This is a good example of why bear spray quantity and duration is essential.”
With the bear gone, Orr, lacerated with severe bites, hiked another 45 minutes to his truck to drove to seek medical attention in Ennis. Over the last year he has made numerous public appearances to share what he learned. He holds no ill will toward grizzlies and is a firm believer, based on real life experience, that bear spray is a better alternative than bullets.

“The best time to use bear spray and avoid contact is to spray when the charging bear enters within 60 feet (20 yards). Direct the spray downward and point it at approximately 30 feet in front of you,” Bartlebaugh says.

“The bear will then have time to feel the effects of the spray and divert its charge at around 15 to 20 feet.”

Oon his website in the wake of the attack: “First and foremost, I am a strong advocate of bear spray! Statistics from recorded bear attacks show that bear spray is more effective than a gun at stopping a bear charge. I used bear spray on a black bear twelve years ago at about 15 feet, and it turned him around in a heartbeat. It works.”

At the same meeting where Bartlebaugh delivered his findings to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, federal and state officials voted to suspend the so-called “six-second rule” pertaining to the recommended duration a can of pepper spray should project a mist. 

We’ll look at how and why the action took place and what it means potentially for people traveling through grizzly country.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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