Grizzly bears, © Todd Mintz

Perspectives on Bear Spray – From the Field

When I was a kid, I used to ride around in my mom’s little hatchback with no seatbelt except the almighty motherly arm-fling every time she slammed on the brakes. Funny how times change — my own daughter is put in a 5-point harness car seat like a racecar driver. Putting on a seatbelt is routine and commonplace – and the same should be true of carrying bear spray in bear country. Each time I walk out the door to enjoy a hike or work in bear country, I carry bear spray. I have had to face the friendly chuckles and jokes about why I am carrying it so close to town or on popular trails. So why do I continue to carry it? Because like a seatbelt, the benefits far outweigh the potential risk, however unlikely.

Black bear_Steve Maslowski_USFWS

Though conflicts with bears are fairly rare, in the case of an attack, bear spray gives you the chance you need to get away. Research studies have shown that 98 percent of those who carry bear spray will come out of a close encounter with a bear uninjured.  In fact, bear spray has an even higher rate of success in protecting humans from bear conflicts than firearms. Another study assessed more than 250 human-bear conflicts to find that over half of the people that came into a conflict with a bear and used a firearm to protect themselves were injured.  In the same study, when firearms were used, 60 percent of the time, a bear was killed.   The bottom line? Bear spray is a tool that increases your safety while also preventing bear mortalities, since bear spray is not lethal to bears.

While we are strong proponents of carrying bear spray in bear country, nothing can replace common sense.  Bear spray should be there as last defense. It is not there to replace good judgment and actions that avoid conflict in the first place. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up from over 15 years of working and living in bear country.

  1. Pay attention to your surroundings. For example, I do not wear headphones while running in bear country.
  2.  Watch for signs of wildlife. Be on the lookout for scat, tracks, and other indicators.
  3. Make noise every so often to alert wildlife to your presence. Bears will most likely move away if they hear you coming.
  4. Keep your food contained in a bear-resistant manner. For example, use bear-resistant food storage lockers at campgrounds or hang food properly when in the backcountry. Do not leave coolers out on picnic tables.  When bears find an easy meal, they remember and often return to places they have found “human produced food.” Mother bears can even teach their cubs this behavior – and it usually ends badly for bears.
  5. Carry bear spray and be knowledgeable about how to use it. Most companies sell inert training canisters for practice use.

By being aware and alert in bear country you can avoid conflicts and most likely never have a situation where you have to use bear spray.

People are reluctant to change, and it can be challenging to carry one more thing when you are out and about. Trust me; I have a 4 year old so I am frequently touting snacks, water bottles, a change of clothes, a haggard baby doll and whatever sticks get picked up along the way. Getting out of our house with minimal stuff is usually an unrealized goal. However, sacrificing safety for convenience is something I am not willing to do. It takes adjustment, but in the end it is a win-win for everyone. So as you’re experiencing the great outdoors, be sure to bring along some bear spray and know how to use it if necessary!

Erin Edge is the Rockies & Plains Representative at Defenders of Wildlife

4 Responses to “Perspectives on Bear Spray – From the Field”

  1. Nino

    We should save these bears they need homes try to help the world we have everything they don ‘t

  2. SJ

    At least this we can agree on: non-lethal means for personal protection is preferred. Extinction is a bad outcome.

    Forgive that this following comment is rather broad and general:

    That said, good things are too often taken too far. Ranchers ought not be persecuted for defending their livelyhood, especially when bear or wolf territory has moved to them and not vice versa. (I applaud the reibursement program, though) And when a man shoots a charging bear in his own yard to defend his kids playing, he ought not have to face the wrath of the Federal Gov’t. I see no reason for trophy hunting predators. Actually I see trophy hunting for anything as silly. (Hunting for sustenance is an entirely different matter) Bears are NOT more sacred than people. Anyone who encourages these grand animals to expand their territory /greatly/ is irresponsible and thoughtless. It invites unnecessary conflict, simple as that. Bears won’t win, and certainly neither will people. Some seem to worship wildlife while hating people. It has become mere politics (if not a religion) by those who believe themselves to be so very well in formed- but who have no clue about the realities of living in that area. It is easy to be an wildlife activist from the comforts of a big city…. All I ask is for a balanced stewardship approach which respects both animals and people. If you want any credibility with regular folks you will need to be sure to not come across with a “the animal is always right, the human always wrong” as some do when there is an unfortunate interaction. I’ve only encountered black bears and sometimes find them a nusaince especially when people have been irresponsible around them. I applaud your efforts to educate people how to behave in the wild. Keep up the good work, but please strive to see the other side. Balance and effectiveness requires folks coming together.

  3. steve

    You know Nino we have invaded al there space the human race is slowly deteriorating life because all this technology. It’s awful we let all these people move to us don’t pay taxes and etc. Wildlife can’t sustain like that duhhhh in fact we can’t either. People need to stop having all these kids they can’t even take care of themselves. The wildlife has to be run out of there home. Horrible………

  4. Angi McGrath

    I believe wildlife lives are just as important as human lives. We far outnumber most of the larger mammal populations. We have the larger brains and should always be a steward in leading the way so that the other mammals can live amongst us. Extinction is not an option and there is no excuse for that becoming a possibility for our fellow large mammals.

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