Bear Necessities: What You Need To Know About Bear Spray

By Kevin Tatsugawa, Brooks-Range Ambassador 

Brown bears (aka grizzly bears) are at the top of the food chain in North America. They are ferocious predators that are more than a match for any person. Yet they are also cute, cuddly, curious animals that often, amusingly, display human-like behavior and emotions. Encountering a bear in the wild is awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time because many people do not know what to do or how to react if they come into close contact with one.

brown bear male

Brown bears have developed a relatively undeserved reputation as ruthless killers that must be met with all force necessary (preferably firearms) to survive a close encounter. The fallacies behind these fears, of course, are nuanced and it is often easier to follow a simple maxim such as “kill or be killed” than it is to understand how to coexist with these magnificent animals. This blog will look at the effectiveness of bear spray (costs $40-$70) in deterring brown bear attacks.

One recent study (Smith et al. 2008) examined the effectiveness of recorded bear spray usage in Alaska over a 20-year span, from 1985-2006. In 46 out of 50 (92%) close-range encounters with brown bears, bear spray stopped the bears’ undesirable behavior. In the close-range encounters where bear-inflicted injuries (3) occurred, all of the injuries were minor (no hospitalization was required).

Bear Spray

Bear spray was effective against brown bears displaying aggressive behavior (such as charging people or persistently following people) in 12 of 14 incidences (85%). The one incident where an aggressive brown bear contacted the person using bear spray, a minor injury requiring stitches was inflicted by the bear.

Many people are concerned about bear spray’s effectiveness in windy conditions. In 5 out of the 71 (7%) recorded incidences of bear spray usage with all types of bears (not just brown bears), wind reportedly effected spray accuracy. However, the bear spray reached the bears in all cases. In 10 out of the 71 cases (14%), users reported negative side effects from the bear spray ranging from minor irritation (11%, 8 of 71) to near incapacitation (3%, 2 of 71). Additionally, in all 71 cases the spray canisters never malfunctioned.

Two girls with backpacks sitting on top of hill, looking at a lake Thousand islands lakes, Eastern Sierra, California

“Two decades of bear spray use in Alaska confirm that it is an effective bear deterrent.” If the initial discharge of bear spray did not discourage the bear from their threatening behavior (which occurred in 18% of the cases), then repeated sprays eventually deterred the bears such that the user could leave. The authors found that bear spray helps temporarily diffuse dangerous situations thereby allowing the person to escape the situation and “the bear time to reassess the situation and move on.”

Importantly, latent bear spray residue has been found to be an attractant to brown bears. Therefore, bear spray should only be used at the time of contact with the bear, not prophylactically.

Due to the fact that, occasionally, multiple discharges of bear spray are required to deter bears, the authors suggest discarding bear spray canisters when the contents fall below 90%. Also, bear sprays have a shelf life of 3-4 years and should be discarded after their expiration date, which can be found on the canister.

Play safe out there!

Dr. Kevin

For more information about deterring bears please refer to the following links:

http://www.bearspray.com/bear_spray_study.pdf

http://www.bearspray.com/bear_spray_vs_bullets.html

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