Bear spray, yes or no?

bear attacks

Illustration from the study “Human behaviour can trigger large carnivore attacks in developed countries”

In the wake of a bear attack in which bear spray didn’t work, in a world with animal attacks trending upward, more than a few Alaskans are pondering the effectiveness of the popular pepper spray which had come to be considered the be-all to end-all in bear protection in the 49th state.

Twenty-seven-year-old Erin Johnson from Anchorage died June 19 after she and a coworker were attacked by a predatory black bear while doing environmental studies in brushy forest about five miles from the state’s largest underground gold mine. 

Johnson’s coworker sprayed the bear with a canister of red-pepper bear deterrent. The capsicum-based sprays have generally worked in other cases, but the spray failed to drive off this bear, which was later shot by a mine employee near Johnson’s body.

Why the spray didn’t work has been the subject of considerable discussion, though there have long been questions about pepper spray and predatory bears.

“Whether the spray would be effective against potentially predaceous black bear remains unanswered,” Stephen Herrero and Andrew Higgins from the University of Calgary wrote in a 1998 study published in Ursus, a journal published by the International Association for Bear Research and Management.

The study – “FIELD USE OF CAPSICUM SPRAY AS A BEAR DETERRENT”  – examined 66 cases in which the spray was used from 1984 to 1994.

“In 94 percent of the close-range encounters with aggressive brown (grizzly bears), the spray appeared to stop the behavior the bear was displaying immediately prior to being sprayed,” they wrote. “In three of these cases, the bear attacked the person spraying….In all three injurious encounters, the bear received a substantial dose of spray to the face.”

Since that study, there have been dozens of other cases in which spray has successfully driven off bears and a few cases where people have been injured by bears after spraying them. But until the Pogo tragedy there were no reports of a case in which spray was used and someone died.

How exactly the spray was used in that incident remains unknown. For the spray to be effective on a quietly approaching, predatory bear, there is some evidence to indicate that it needs to be sprayed into the animal’s face at very close range – a matter of a few feet – to maximize the determined animal’s exposure to the pepper.


Predatory bears

Alaska has witnessed a number of predatory bear fatalities in recent years. Four years before Johnson was attacked and killed just east of Delta Junction on the Alaska Highway, a black bear killed and partially consumed 64-year-old Robert Weaver near George Lake just east of Delta Junction.

A year earlier in Denali National Park and Preserve, a grizzly bear killed and partially consumed 49-year-old Richard White from San Diego. After White’s death, it was suggested he was partially to blame for failing to carry pepper spray and for taking photographs of the bear at close range.

White had previous experience hiking in Denali, where the bears largely ignore people. It is not uncommon for bears there to approach within tens of feet of groups of people. White started taking photos of the bear that killed him at a distance of about 40 yards, the National Park Service reported.

The photographs left behind in his camera revealed a bear that sensed his presence and then began a methodical approach. Rangers who viewed the photographs, which were never publicly released, said there were none that indicated the bear charged.

And ranger Pete Webster told the Anchorage Daily News at the time that in the last couple of photographs the bear had “a definite, focused stare.”

Rob Foster, a Canadian biologist, describes seeing a similar look on the face of a predatory black bear before it attacked him in 2013. Foster drove the bear off with spray, but it came back. He sprayed it three more times and threatened it with the spray many more times over the course of a 45-minute encounter.

Marti Miller, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist who was actively stalked by a black bear in central Alaska, said she will never forget seeing the look in that bear’s eyes. A colleague of Cynthia Dusel-Bacon, an unarmed geologist a bear tried to eat in central Alaska, Miller was carrying a gun for bear protection. Miller shot and killed the animal.

In Foster’s case, the spray helped him escape the bear, but it wasn’t easy. And Foster’s aggressiveness toward the bear might have played as big a role in his survival as the spray. With the bear aware the object in Foster’s hands could make it uncomfortable, Foster repeatedly charged the bear waving the can as if he was about to spray.

That, Foster said, caused the bear to back off. And after the 45-minute dance of predatory and prey, with Foster the potential prey, the bear finally gave up the attack and slipped away into the woods.

Whether the spray would have worked on the grizzly that approached White as prey will never be known, but the Denali incident fits the most commonly agreed upon definition of a predatory bear attack:

The bear approaches calmly, kills someone, drags the body to a feeding location, and begins feeding on it.  Dusel-Bacon, who lost her arms but survived an attack by a predatory black bear in the Pogo area in 1977, describes being dragged by the animal to its feeding location before it started ripping away chunks of her flesh. Denali Park rangers shot the bear that killed White atop a food cache where it was defending the man’s remains from other bears.

Discussions of predatory bears attacks have largely focused on black bears since Stephen Herrero, a noted bear authority, and Andrew Higgins published a 2011 study cataloging an average of one such attack per year by black bears in North America since the 1960s. 

But there have been a number of predatory attacks on people by grizzly bears – the bigger, more powerful relative of the black bear – in Alaska. The year White was killed and partially eaten in Denali, the same thing happened to another man on Chichagof Island north of Sitka in the Alaska Panhandle. 

And in the most famous bear attack in Alaska history, both self-professed “bear whisperer” Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and largely eaten by a grizzly bear, what Alaskans often call a “brown bear,” in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003.

Treadwell had neither spray nor a gun for bear protection. He felt no need for either. He had spent 13 years getting close to bears in Katmai – close enough to pet, hug and kiss them – and believed he fully understood the animals’ behavior.

And he did until he met the rare, predatory bear.

The Treadwell case illustrates both the danger of such a bear and how rare the phenomenon. Treadwell had thousands of bear encounters, possibly tens of thousands of bear encounters, in the years before that October night when a predatory bear invaded his camp.

His last words, recorded on the audio of a camera turned on at the start of the encounter though the lens remained covered, were a request for Huguenard to hit the bear with a frying pan, the couple’s only weapon. That didn’t work.

Whether bear spray would have proven more effective is debatable.

Interesting theory

Sean Farley, a bear researcher and wildlife physiologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, emphasized that bear spray has proven hugely effective on charging bears, especially charging grizzlies.

But he noted the physical state of those bears. They charge with eyes wide open, nostrils flaring and often huffing air into their lungs. They are fully exposed to the active ingredient in the spray – oleoresin capsicum, an oily extract from the pepper plant.

Unlike tear gas, which appears to work poorly on bears, capsicum causes more than just irritation to the eyes. Inhaled, it inflames airways making it temporarily harder to breathe and from what is known about research on humans, it might do even more than that.

“With acute exposure, there is rapid onset of constitutional symptoms including nausea, fear and disorientation,” a 1999 study on the “Health Hazards of Pepper Spray” concluded. 

Dave Smith, the author of a book on bear safety, said how well the spray works on bears might depend on so something as basic as whether “the bear is breathing in or breathing out” when the spray hits.

Reactions to capsicum, that health study noted, are highly dose dependent. A charging grizzly is likely to get a big dose of capsicum. That is not necessarily the case for a predatory bear.

Farley describes predatory bears as approaching with eyes squinting, mouths shut and  nostrils narrowed. They come in like bears approaching beehives ready to suffer a bit to get the food they want. Their physical preparations would serve to minimize the dose of spray hitting the bear.

Couple such a dose-minimizing approach with a bear’s inherently high pain threshold, Farley said, stir in the individual variability of bears who like people might have greater or lesser tolerances for capsicum, and you can come up with a pretty good theory as to why some bears appear able to tolerate spray.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Brad Benter, who has experience with spraying several bears that barely responded, describes spray as “better than nothing,” but warns people need to be aware it might not work very well.

Twice, Benter said, he has sprayed bears in the face from as close as six feet and solicited only a minimal reaction.  In one case, he said, the bear backed away from the weatherport into which it had been peering. In the other, the bear just ignored the spray.

In neither of those cases did the spray spark aggression, but “it wasn’t like the bears went away,” Benter said.

Benter, ironically, was among the first of a bunch of mountain runners to respond to the scene of a predatory bear attack that left 16-year-old Patrick “Jack” Cooper dead along a popular hiking trail just off a busy highway only 25 miles south of Alaska’s largest city on June 18. Benter had bear spray with him and thought about rushing the bear to try to get it away from Cooper’s body.

With others in the area, however, including more young runners, he calculated the risk of such a move was too great. He has wrestled with that decision ever since, though it would appear he made the absolutely right call.

Documented danger

After 37-year-old Texan Patti McConnel was killed by a black bear near Laird River Hot Springs Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada in 1997, a local man tried to drive the bear off her body.

Raymond Kitchen, 56, from nearby Fort Nelson was “believed to have been an experienced hunter familiar with the habits of bears,” the Associated Press reported at the time. Canadian officials say Kitchen hit the bear in the head with a shovel. Such an aggressive attack would normally send a black bear fleeing.

This one instead attacked and killed Kitchen. Black bears – which are almost never aggressive in defense of their cubs, a behavior exactly the opposite of grizzly bears – appear every bit as dangerous as their bigger cousins when defending what they consider to be their food.

The best way, and possibly the only safe way, to deal with such a bear is with a bullet. The Laird “bear was shot and killed by a tourist who rushed to get a weapon,” the AP reported. The bear on Cooper’s body was shot and wounded by a Chugach State Park ranger and later shot and  killed by employees of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation.

The bear found guarding Johnson’s body was killed by a Pogo employee.

Sales pitch

Bear spray is pitched by almost everyone these days as a must-have piece of Alaska safety gear, though the risks of being attacked by a bear are so low it is reasonable to wonder how much people should worry about bears at all.

Statistically, you are orders of magnitude more likely to die in a motor vehicle or boating accident in Alaska than to be attacked by a bear, let alone killed by one.

No bookmaker has ever calculated the odds on being killed by a bear in Alaska,  but the National Park Service once ran the numbers for Yellowstone National Park.

The odds of being attacked by a bear in Yellowstone were put at 1 in 2.1 million. Bear densities in Yellowstone are a half or less those in Alaska. So the odds in Alaska would be fall to one in a million or less – maybe as low as 1 per 100,000 or 200,000 – in areas where bears concentrate.

But even with that, the risks pale next to many other ways of dying. The odds of being killed by a dog in the U.S. are 1 in 112,400, according to the National Safety Council,  and you’re about twice as likely to die in a severe storm or from a slip in the bathroom.

The biggest dangers are things people take for granted on a day-to-day basis like riding a motorcycle, where the odds of death are calculated at 1 in 985; taking a walk where there are motor vehicles, odds of death at 1 in 647; succumbing to the injuries from a motor-vehicle crash,  odds at 1 in 114; falling victim to a respiratory disease, odds at 1 in 28, or dying from cancer or heart disease, odds at 1 in 7.

Given the latter two categories, a valid argument could be made that it is actually safer to put in earbuds and go for a run oblivious to the many bears along the Brooks River in bear-infested Katmai National Park and Preserve than to lounge on the sofa watching TV, eating chips and drinking beer as your cardiovascular system slowly decays.

“Folks are terrible at risk assessment,” said Jeff Benowitz, an assistant professor of geochronolgy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a veteran Alaska climber and adventurer. “Twenty-six years of spending months in the backcountry every year, often alone, stalked by three bears – two brown, one black – in that time and chased them off by my being a big, nasty bear.

“Bears are way down on my fear list, avalanches and rock fall being rated much higher.”

This logical observation makes Benowitz an oddity. The numbers mean nothing to most people. Bears spark a primal fear, and bear-spray – no matter its limitations – has become the antidote for that fear.

National Geographic in 2015 labeled spray “a revolutionary tool for better  co-existence” between people and bears. 

The Sierra Club is now lobbying the federal government to make it a requirement that anyone entering a national forest home to grizzlies carry spray. Some tout bear spray as more effective than firearms though the evidence is nowhere that clearcut.

What can be said for certain is that the spray is better for bears, at least in the short-term, because it saves their lives. The long-term consequences for both bears and humans are unknown.


Guns kill bears. There is no doubt about that, and tens of thousands of black bears have been gunned down in North America in the past decade. 

At the same time, black bear populations have grown and are now thriving in Canada and in many U.S. states from California in the west to New Jersey in the east and as far south as Florida. 

Biology functions on the basis of populations, not individuals. Saving individual animals when a population is endangered is vital, but there is nothing wrong with killing dangerous animals when a population is healthy, and killing those animals might be good for people.

A comprehensive 2016 study of the growing number of attacks by bears, wolves, coyotes and cougars in both North America and Europe observed that the uptick in attacks and deaths may “reflect an increasing number of bold individuals in large carnivore populations, as this trait is often correlated with aggressiveness, and this might lead to more aggressive responses when large carnivores encounter humans. We hypothesise that intense and prolonged human-caused mortality imposes selection pressures on target populations (selective removal of certain phenotypes) and might lead to rapid evolutionary changes.

“Natural selection maintains a mix of behavioural phenotypes in populations, the shy-bold behavioural continuum; bold individuals thrive on risk and novelty, whereas shy individuals shrink from the same situations. Persecution, however, is expected to result in the disproportionate removal of bold individuals, as they are less cautious, and thus more likely to be killed. As a consequence, shy individuals might have been over-represented in remnant large carnivore populations in the past. Additionally, individuals may become more vigilant and actively avoid contact with humans during times of intense persecution.”

The study posed a sobering question of what happens if this trend continues.

“The contemporary conservation paradigm emerged during the 1960s–1970s, when most bounty systems were banned and large carnivores were reclassified from vermins or bountied predators to game or protected species,” the authors wrote. “Since then, although large carnivores have continued to be hunted or managed, most populations have generally increased during the past four decades. Increasing population trends in conjunction with relaxed artificial selection may potentially engender higher variation in behavioural temperaments, which is likely to alter individual responses to human encounters. This significant increase of large carnivore populations in both North America and Europe, and their consequent range expansion, also may contribute to explain the observed increase in the attacks on humans.”

The paper buttresses the argument for killing aggressive bears – dozens of which are killed in Alaska every year in what are classified as legal, “defense of life and property (DLP)” shootings.

DLP shootings, which dramatically boost the number of incidents in which guns are effective, complicate the debate on what weapon – bear spray or a gun – is best for protection from bears in remote Alaska, though weapons are but one tool for defense.

Other defenses all too often get overlooked in a discussion that moves quickly to technological solutions to ending bear problems with little discussion of simpler solutions. The best ways to avoid bear problems remain to travel in groups, make noise, and avoid bears.

If you see them, give them lots of room. If you get into an area with a lot of concentrated bear sign, back track or head in a different direction. If you think there are bears around, make a lot of noise to scare them off. If you meet one up close, stand up to the bear and make it obvious you’re not an easy target. If you have to, drive the bear off by throwing rocks or sticks.

Even predatory bears apparently after another kill have been driven back by groups of aggressive people.

But if you do run into that rare, predatory bear  – especially if you are alone – Smith, the author of “Backcountry Bear Basics,” is one of those who believes you might be better off with a gun than with spray.

He has been tracking bear spray use in the Lower 48 and believes it is seriously over-hyped.

“Bear spray is holy, holy, hold, down here,” the former Alaskan said by telephone from his home in Arizona. Smith is not an opponent of bear spray. Like Benter, Foster and a lot of Alaska wildlife biologists, he considers spray a tool, and like all tools it has its pluses and minuses.

“Bear spray is a good deal, and there are a lot of people who don’t like guns or don’t want to carry a gun for other reasons,” he said before ticking off a list of bear-spray pluses:

Lighter than a gun; requires less training; no risk of an accidental, fatal shooting; and no real skill required for use.

“So fine, go to bear spray,” he said, “but realize you’re giving up something.”

There is simply not enough evidence to conclude – as some have – that bear spray is more effective than a firearm, Smith said, and the attack on Johnson at Pogo Mine underlines that.  Smith is deeply critical of government officials for suggesting bear spray might be more effective than a firearm.

He is of the belief that it was only a matter of time before the growing faith in bear spray got someone killed. He’s not alone.

“I have never used bear spray,” said Rob Wright. “I don’t trust an aerosol can for one. You can’t take it on commercial airlines…and they’re finding out that it isn’t working very well.”

Trained as a wildlife biologist, Wright is now in the business of protecting people from bears. He runs a Fairbanks-based company that teaches bear safety and provides “bear guards” for the employees of mining and petroleum exploration companies working in wild Alaska.

“I teach bear safety with a shotgun,” he said.

The Pogo Mine is reported to have hired a number of bear guards to provide protection for those doing work in wild areas away from the mine proper since Johnson’s death. Pogo spokeswoman Lorna Shaw did not return phone calls asking about guards.

Meanwhile, the question of whether Alaskans should rely on spray, simply stop worrying about bears, or arm themselves is undergoing another round of discussion in a state where some popular salmon fishing streams – such as the Kenai Peninsula’s Russian River – already sport so many bear-fearing, pistol-packing anglers that the gun wary worry about the dangers of an accidental shooting linked to a bear.

That has never happened in Alaska. But there have now been a number of people accidentally gassed with pepper spray at the Russian.

CORRECTION: This story was edited July 12, 2017 to reflect that the odds in Yellowstone Park were calculated for bear attacks, not fatalities. The odds of being killed are significantly less. Most people survive bear attacks. And since the study cited in this story, a new analysis has lowered the odds to 1 in 2.7 million visits with the odds for those using only developed areas of the park falling to 1 in 25.1 million. The odds do increase to 1 in 232,000 for backpackers hiking between campsites, but even that is a low risk level compared to driving to the park.










27 replies »

  1. Great article! Thanks. As far as shotgun defense is concerned, there are all different kinds of ammunition available from shot of different sizes to slugs of different types. What is considered most effective for close up encounters like you are mentioning?

    • I’ve heard nothing but good things about Brenneke slugs. They are the standard at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and what has been stuffed in my Remington 870 when I’ve gone following injured bears around in the brush.

  2. In May 2009 in Eastern Finland, Europe, deep in the forest and far from any town or road I had a very close encounter (less than 10 meters) with a massive brown bear. As I was putting back my water bottle in my rucksack (I was on a 6 days backpacking trip) I heard something moving. I lifted up my head and found him staring at me. I got very surprised and started to feel fear. My reaction this: “Do not run. Those run much faster than you. Keep your rucksack on. It might be your protection. Do not move and stare at him too.” After a minute or so I slowly stepped forward him like “You get away from there because this is my route.” At my first steps he slowly moved aside. I stopped and did the same. He run away. I don’t know if what I did was right. I didn’t know about his intentions. It my first experience. But I have always thought that standing, staring at him and moving towards him was a sign sent to him that I was not a good prey. I can be wrong but this is what I believe.

    • Glad it worked out for you and the bear, no one hurt and the bear avoiding the nasty spray. Still if I had been you I’d have felt a bit more confident with the spray , JUST IN CASE IN DID NOT MOVE “ASIDE” …. I never hurts to have a backup plan JUST IN CASE !!!!!

  3. Found the article very informative and made lots of good points. Have been to YSNP on three occasions the first time was just after two men in separate incidents had been killed by grizzlies. My brother and I are both Hobby Photographers and did not leave the vehicle w/o our Bear spray. While we did not see any grizzlies on the first trip , seeing tourist chasing a mother black bear w/cubs up a hillside so they could take pictures was rather disturbing. On our last visit three years ago we were fortunate enough to have three very positive bear encounters, all the while carrying bear spray. Shooting picture of a Sow w/cub on a hillside next to a paved pulloff was most interesting. 35 Photographers all w/big lens on tripods only 30-35 yards away a one point . The two of them never payed us any attention and just dug for grubs & or larva or worms among the small boulders. Then just a few miles down the road next to the lake shore theres a Big Grizzly on an elk (Rut Kill ). He occasionally looked up from feeding to glance around and then return to his banquet. He was at least 75 -90 yards away across a small pond so no clear danger but still took bear spray w/me. Last bear was a hide and seek affair just north of Old Faithful. Rangers kept shooting this bear w /rubber bullets and blaring the Vehicle sirens in an attempt to scar him away from the Old Faithful area. Ranger advised the bear was in the habit of eating the mushroom that grow around certain thermals. Bear was determined on crossing the road and we watched as several people unarmed and w/o spray risked getting into the tree line simply to get a glimpse of this bear. In all three instances I felt reasonably safe but always had my can of spray. Only while standing w/all the others shooting pics of the sow & cub did I feel a bit nervous but it was that can of spray and all the others around me that put me at ease.
    Having a good deal of knowledge about Predators in general and bear in particular I know RUNNING AWAY IS NEVER AN OPTION. It will only trigger the response to run after you and bring you down because you have acted like PREY.
    Biggest relief is that you can now carry a handgun in National Parks if you are licensed. The thought of a 44 cal. on ones hip is much more reassuring thing as opposed to just bear spray. Like the article mentions. I want to see bears and I want them safe so I carry spray but I also want to remain alive so theres the other option. I just pray I never need to make the call on which option to choose for my sake and the bears…..

  4. Good article, puts it all into perspective quite well, one minor correction. The odds of being killed by a bear in Yellowstone National Park was never estimated at 1 in 2.1 million, that was the calculated odds of being attacked by a bear, but most attacks don’t lead to death. There have been only 8 people killed by bears during the entire history of Yellowstone Park (established in 1872), so the odds of being killed by a bear are significantly lower than 1 in 2.1 million. The most recent calculated odds of attack (not death) are: 1 in 25.1 million visits for those visitors that don’t leave developments, roadsides, and boardwalks; 1 in 22.8 million for those camping in roadside campgrounds; 1 in 1.4 million for those camping in backcountry campsites; and 1 in 232 thousand for backpackers hiking between campsites. The overall odds of bear attack for all visitors combined is approximately 1 in 2.7 million visits.

    Kerry Gunther

  5. Excellent article, Craig. Very well done. Really.
    Only one slip – “…the gun wary worry about the dangers of an accidental shooting linked to a bear. That has never happened in Alaska.” Until it does… like you truthfully mentioned how no one had ever been killed in using bear spray… until it happened.

    • it’ll probably happen. we had a guide shot and killed in a bear accident a few years back, but he was guiding when he got between a client and a bear and was killed.

  6. As a cyclist, if I carry anything at all for defense I opt for spray over a gun simply due to weight. But Dave S. is correct in his comment above that having it and quickly being able to use it are two different matters. If I carry it, I strap it to my handlebars where I can access it quickly. Fortunately I have never had to test it under an actual bear encounter.
    That being said, there is also value in acting loud, large and aggressive. Last Memorial Day (2016) I was doing a loop around town on my bike. On my way home I took the coastal trail, heading towards the Kinkaid chalet. There is a broad turnout with two picnic tables a short distance before beginning to go up the hill to the Chalet. I usually stop there to take a short break and have a bite, then ride the last twelve miles home. It was a relatively busy day on the trail being a holiday and sunny out. In fact two couples walked away as I rolled up to the table and got off of my bike. I was sitting at one of the picnic tables and looking out towards Fire Island. When I got up to grab a water bottle from my bike, I saw a black bear slightly off of the trail on my side. He was slowly walking towards me. I yelled at him but he did not go away. He kept walking directly towards me and I was getting increasingly nervous. I had nothing with me to use for defense. The situation finally devolved to me standing with my bicycle in front of me, the picnic table and the bear, less than six feet away. I brandished the bike at him while screaming as loud as I could to “Get the f&*#k” out of here” at the bear. He jumped back a foot, turned around and walked away. During this whole time (I have no idea of how long it actually was) nobody else was around. I quickly got out of there and told the fist few groups of people I saw coming down the trail about the bear and to be careful. About a week later, one of my co-workers told me that Fish & Game shot an aggressive black bear near there. I suspect it was the same one, but I do not know.
    As regards guns, one other factor to consider if you decide to carry, is that unless you are well practiced with drawing and bring your weapon to bear under the sudden conditions of a real attack, be it a bear or a malicious dirt bag, You are probably a greater danger to yourself and/or those around you than to a predator. So practice with the weapon before going out. Great article.

  7. While pushing my way up the hike-a-bike on the Bear Lake section of the Iditarod Trail out of Seward, I happened upon a road flare which I initially took for trash dropped by an inconsiderate trail user. I thought twice about carrying it out because it was rather chunky and would add to my already generous load. Upon second thought, the discarded flare might actually be trail magic–I could use it as a second line of defense against a bear. Leaving it behind to save weight would tempt fate!

    I rehearsed in my mind a scenario where I would first use the bear spray holstered to the shoulder strap of my pack. Perhaps it would give me time to grab the flare that I loosely stowed in an outside pocket. I could reach for it as though unsheathing an arrow. Pop the top, strike the match, and I’d have a weapon that burns for 30-minutes.

    Others have advised me to carry a “bear banger,” a small dischargeable flare aimed over the bear’s head. But what if the aerial flare were to overshoot the animal and send it charging in my direction? And it’s a one-shot deal. Not to mention the fire danger. With a hand held flare I would at least have time to stomp out errant embers. I checked around me and noticed the soggy forest floor. It had been raining the previous 3 days in Seward so I wasn’t too concerned about starting a fire.

    Whoever dropped the flare had thought about the utility of the device, protecting the user from the pointy end with a strategically placed wine cork. I haven’t seen any discussion about using road flares for bear protection. I figure it’s a good addition to bear spray. It still resides on my pack should I have the misfortune to have to use it.

  8. Got to say, I think articles like this propagate typical redneck myth and misinformation about bears. How can you call a particular bear a “predatory bear”? All bears are predators. What the problem is … are people that act like prey. Bears like to eat animals, especially animals that don’t make much noise (moose, deer, rabbits, mountain sheep and goats, ground squirrels). So if you are walking quietly through brush carrying bear spray, a gun or a grenade … the issue is not what you are carrying for protection. The issue is that you are acting like a bear’s prey. And what do bears do when they sense prey? They go after it. The bear safety solution 99% of the time is not what you choose for arsenal. The solution is to not act like prey. Most people don’t get this. They think they can silently travel the backcountry and when a bear runs up to them it will see the big gun on their hip, get scared and run away. It doesn’t work that way.

    • So on Kodiak island deer, elk, and bear hunters, call firing a rifle our a handgun, “ringing the dinner bell ” as the Alaskan Brown bear associates it with the potential of a free meal killed by a hunter…. so a loud gunshot, followed by voices talking during gutting, skinning, and packing up of the downed animal, doesn’t indicate your human? I think at best your comment is conditional, also repeat offenders in predatory bear cases, likely listen for human prey just like they listen for animals they pretty upon. I’ve hunted bears since I was 12 ,I’m 55 now, I don’t wear a “bear bell” for the simple fact that open range cattle wear them, and low and behold, get eaten periodically by bears… contrary to your belief virtually all bears (then considered predatory) which kill one cow, come back for more… so I’m definitely not going to sound “cowlike”. As far as making noise….a bear can hear you breathing at 20 yards, hear gravel or stones crunching underfoot at many times that distance, or a twig snapping. Surprising a bear …Rarely happens! It may wait to see what exactly you are but hiking up a trail, (unless he’s in the process of something noisy like tearing apart a log to find insects ) he knows your there long before you see him weather your voicing “hey bear, hey bear ” or not…. he may not know exactly what you are… but if your pants are rubbing against each other, our boots are clunking he certainly does. So I’m not sure if your guessing, or going on what you’ve read, but I don’t think you’ve spent very much time around bears… they have amazing ears, noses, and tho their eyes aren’t that of a pronghorn… they see pretty well….I’ve had them pick up my movement a couple hundred yards away.

    • Great. Thanks, Tim. I often feel like a wounded animal dying silently when I’m riding. Now I know that’s how the bears see me, too. Maybe I’ll just hibernate until winter.

    • These particular bears exhibit predatory behavior towards humans which is unlike almost all other bears. Whether/not this behavior alters their other predatory behavior is not known since it is so unusual.
      Just my opinion but I suspect how the humans acted appears to not have a thing to do with this predatory behavior due to the instances where the humans were able to tell their story (they did not act like prey in some instances).

  9. This is just a special case, Craig but it has always fascinated me. The area is just south of Juneau called Sweetheart Creek that has a remote release of red salmon that cannot spawn and are intended to be all caught by personal use fishermen and bears. The bears are to my knowledge all brownies but its on the mainland so could attract black bears too.
    Anyway, most of the fishermen there use whistles and you can tell where the bears are by the location of the whistle blows. I one time watched a large brown bear coming up the creek and getting near where a few fishermen had their stringers of fish, when one of them picked up his shotgun and moved towards the bear and upon blowing his whistle the bear did an immediate about face and proceeded to run down the creek. There was no question that this response was due to the loud report of said whistle but I’m not sure what sort of other things have been done to get these bears to respond like they do.
    I’ve never read anything like whistles being something to carry for bears yet almost everyone doing their fishing at this creek carries them. Nobody fishes at night (after dark) so maybe the whistles are strictly daylight models. Heheh!

  10. In the Weaver incident apparently his wife had a gun but the gun jammed. So there’s always that possibility. Also, no mention of last week’s JBER brown bear mauling involving two cyclists where it sounds like spray was highly effective. I’m wondering if a predatory attack has ever occurred on someone on a bike or if they all involve (relatively) slow moving humans on foot?Personally, when I’m riding I think it’s more likely I’ll encounter a brownie with cubs than a predaceous blackie so I’ll continue to carry spray in my water bottle cage and hope for the best. Still not sure of the best way to protect myself from the drivers on the Sterling Highway on the way home, though.

    • Pete: That’s an extremely good question. A similar one compounds any assessment of the running/cycling issue. Are there times runners/cyclists go past so fast the bear doesn’t react? If you remember the Larry Waldron, Marcy Trent attack, Waldron went by that bear on a kill without incident. He came back to save Marcie, who was lagging somewhat behind him on the trail and was then attacked and killed. I’ve mountain biked passed a moose kill with every reason to believe a grizzly was on it without even knowing it or the bear was there. A neighbor walked by not long after with her pack of dogs on the same trail, and the bear stuck its head through the alders to challenge them. There are so many variables here even before one gets to the nonverbal bear-human interactions that can compound things. The spray certainly didn’t hurt in the JBER situation. Would the bear have had the same response to being charged by another human without the spray? Possibly. I carry spray almost every day on a walk, jog or bike because there is now a lot of bear sign up valley. I’m happy to have the option available. But I wouldn’t want to really, really have to count on it, and I still generally treat bears the way I always have. I yell at them to get them the hell out of the trail, and if they don’t respond to that (a rarity), I quietly back out of the situation. And if they follow, even more of a rarity, I put on a pretty good show of force. I haven’t had to spray one yet. I’ve chased two off the trail this year and backed out on one, a black bear that was eating dandelions and went back to eating dandelions when he saw me leaving.

    • Yeah, bear spray was highly effective–after one rider got mauled. From descriptions of the incident, if the guy who got mauled had been carrying bear spray in his water bottle cage he would not have had time to use it. A 2008 study on the Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska concludes by saying, “Persons working and recreating in bear habitat should feel confident that they are safe if carrying bear spray.” That’s an incredibly irresponsible statement. Carrying bear spray is one issue; using it is another issue. Remember the NOLS kids near Talkeetna? The wilderness guide near Sitka in 2016? The ADFG biologist on Shugyak Island? There’s a long list of people who were carrying bear spray while working or recreating in bear habitat who got nailed by a bear before they had time to spray. At a 2012 Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop, Steve Herrero remarked that people carrying bear spray who get into a situation where it’s obvious they won’t have time to use it should consider playing dead. People say bear spray saved the day for the mountain biker on JBER, but if he had just played dead the bear probably would have taken off. And yes, it’s easier to tell someone to play dead than to actually do it while being mauled by a bear.

  11. A cycling friend of mine always carries bear spray. He’s never had to use it on a bear but twice it’s saved him from being mugged by nogoodniks on the trails.

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