Protect yourself


Proven bear stoppers top to bottom: .30-06 rifle, 12-gauge shotgun, .454 Casull and a collection of bear sprays/Craig Medred photo

If you’re anywhere in Alaska bear country – and almost all of the 49th state is bear country – and you’re not carrying some sort of bear protection, you’re being foolish.

So conclude two authorities on bears in summarizing their review of 135 years of bear-human conflicts for a study published in the May issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Brigham Young University professor Tom Smith and noted Canadian bear expert Stephen Herrero don’t put their warning in terms as black-and-white as those above, but they’re close.

Bear spray and firearms in the hands of skilled shooters are so effective in saving lives and preventing injuries, they write in Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880 – 2015, that “entering bear country without them is unwise.

“Nonetheless, the vast majority of persons in our database had no bear deterrent on them and when faced with an aggressive or predatory bear had few options. Hence, people run, climb trees and play dead, all with poor results, when they should have been readying a proven deterrent and standing their ground.”

The duo suggest packing bear spray in off-road Alaska should be no different from putting on your seatbelt before driving onto an Alaska highway.

See other safety tips at end of story.

Bear spray is a capsaicin pepper aerosol first developed by archer Mark Matheny after he was attacked by a bear in Montana in 1992 and saved by a hunting companion who happened to be carrying a product called “Karate in a Can” designed for self-protection from human assailants.

“…With his pepper spray canister in hand, (Fred) Bahnson came running toward the bear screaming,” Matheny later wrote. “She dropped me and lunged at Bahnson, who shot a split second blast of spray into the bear’s face just as she knocked him down. I saw Bahnson falling, thinking ‘this is horrible; now she’s getting both of us.”

Only she didn’t. The bear quickly turned away from Bahnson to jump on a squirming Matheny. He played dead, and the bear left him to go for Bahnson again. This time Bahnson hit her again with the bear spray, according to Matheny’s account, from “approximately 10 feet away in the mouth and nose with the nearly full 4 ounce can of spray, emptying it.

“Gasping and choking, the bear veering off into the woods, the cubs bounding after her.”

Matheny and Bahnson thus became the first people to save themselves from a grizzly with pepper spray, and Matheny was given the idea that led him to found UDAP, the first of several companies to get into the bear spray business.

The rest is history.

“As of 2015, 75 instances of bear spray use were recorded (in Alaska) of which 70 (93.3 percent) were successful in altering bears’ aggressive behavior whereas five (6.7 percent) were not,” Smith and Herrero write.

“However, of the 197 persons involved in those 75 encounters only four received slight injuries (2 percent) – all inflicted by grizzly bears.”

Limited data

There is a significant likelihood, the scientists add, that the spray worked on a lot more bears than are in the study. Smith and Herrero says information on bear attacks, which involve people being injured by a bear, is limited, and information on incidents, in which people are involved in non-injury incidenst, even more so.

“Unquestionably,” they write, “many incidents go unreported for a variety of reasons. It is believed that many human-bear interactions resolve peacefully, are not newsworthy, and therefore underreported. This (also) includes times when persons successfully dispatch a bear with a firearm.”

There is an old saying on how to deal with aggressive bears in the non-urban areas of Alaska: “shoot, shovel and shut up.” How many bears die this way is impossible to know. Data on attacks in which people are injured is better but not perfect.

“No state or federal agency is responsible for maintaining records of injuries or deaths from bear attacks or bear incidents in Alaska,” the researchers write, and the state of Alaska has hampered research by refusing to release reports on defense of life and property (DLP) kills after 1990.

“Some speculate that more records are needed for a more accurate analysis of human-bear conflict in Alaska,” Smith and Herrero caution, “but we have no reason to believe that the basic insights provided by this analysis would change in significant ways with their addition.”

Their conclusion as to weapons, it should be noted, was long ago recognized by both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, which require employees working in Alaska to carry firearms in the field.


The rule would appear well founded. The study says attacks on researchers have increased five-fold since 1980 with five incidents before and 33 after. The numbers appear to reflect the increased amount of scientific research underway in the 49th state.

Lifestyle changes are clearly reflected in the data, too.  Since 1980, attacks on joggers went up nineteen fold from one to 19, and those on cyclists grew five fold from one to five.

“None of these joggers or bicyclists were carrying a bear deterrent, and we believe that contributed to the outcome,” the study added.

Hikers and hunters remain far and away the largest category of people attacked by bears. Attacks on hunters have been going down, though, with attacks on hikers going up, probably representative of another lifestyle change.

Hunters and hikers make up about half of all those involved in serious bear incidents or attacks followed in diminishing order by fishermen, researchers, joggers, trappers, cyclists, photographers, people butchering fish or game, and berry pickers.

About half of the serious incidents recorded over the past 135 years involved people who escaped without injury. Sixty-two people died after being attacked, however, and another 59 were severely injured.

Grizzly bears are the big danger, inflicting 83.5 percent of all injuries and accounting for 79 percent of the deaths. Polar bears, despite their deadly reputation, have killed only two people since 1880. Black bears, up until 2015, had killed only five.

“Most human-black bear interactions end with the bear seeking refuge in cover,” the study notes. “The paucity of black bear attacks in 135 years of history attest to this” inherent black bear survival strategy of fleeing any potential danger.

But black bear attacks are up more than 25 percent since the study was completed. Two deaths last year brought the black bear total to seven. Black bears killed a teenage boy in the Anchorage area and an Anchorage woman in Central Alaska. 

The state suffered its first fatality this year when hiker Mike Solis was killed by a grizzly bear near Eagle River this week. He was 44 years old.

Eighty three percent of those attacked in Alaska since 1880 were adult men, the study said. Seventy-four percent of the attacks happened between June and November, but there were attacks in every month of the year. Almost half involved someone surprising a bear.

More than 40 percent, however, involved bears approaching people, either because the bear was curious or saw the human as possible prey. The study concluded humans started the problem 46 percent of the time and bears the other 30 percent. In the remaining 25 percent of cases, it was impossible to tell who initiated the incident.

Attacks were most common from 2 to 5 p.m., which could be a simple reflection of when most people are on the trail. Few serious bear encounters occurred from midnight through 10 a.m., but when they did, they usually involved an attack.

And a third of all attacks took place during those night-time hours. Fifty-eight percent of all attacks were in brushy or wooded areas where visibility was limited.

Firearms were used in self-defense 236 times, and in more than 75 percent of those cases stopped the bear.

“Reasons for firearm failures included not enough time to react, shots missed the bear, wounded bear, mechanical failure (short-stroked or mechanism jammed) and reluctance to shoot which gave the bear time to make contact,” the study said. “Given that nearly 50 percent of all encounters occurred with less than 10 meters, it is not surprising that firearms can be difficult to bring into play in many bear encounters.”

The need for skill to use a firearm versus the little skill needed to use bear spray led the researchers to recommend the latter over the former. Federal agencies which issue firearms in Alaska require employees and volunteers complete a firearm training program before going out into the wild.


Dogs in the wilderness are a much debated subject, and the study data there is interesting.

Herrero in a 2014 study cautioned that dogs might well spark attacks. After examining 92 attacks in North America between 2010 and 2014, he and a colleague concluded that in the majority of cases it appeared loose-running dogs brought bears back to people.

A subsequent study by Spanish researcher Vincenzo Penteriani, and colleagues from around the globe including Herrero, concluded that “unleashed dogs can exacerbate the probability of a large carnivore attack (by big cats or bears)  because a dog that runs away from a large carnivore towards the owner can trigger a dangerous situation when the carnivore chases it.

“When dogs were involved, large carnivores usually focused their attention on the dog rather than on the person. However, in some instances the human was attacked as a consequence of its proximity to the dog or because of its reaction towards the large carnivore.”

The subject of bears and dogs remains much debated, however, and the new study only adds fuel to the fire.

Herrero and Smith found five cases where “dogs were likely responsible for inciting an attack, either by bringing a bear back to its owner (four cases) or barking, thus attracting the bear (1 case).”

On the other hand, there were 19 cases in which “dogs defending persons were successful in terminating the mauling.”

The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the study as to whether dogs are a good thing or a bad thing in bear country is that it depends on the dog.

Meanwhile, there are clearly some good things for increasing safety in bear country that are not debatable. Most of these have been well known for a long time but the study underlines them.

Safety checklist

  • Travel with friends and stay close. The study found not a single case of two or more people injured by a bear “while grouping together and standing their ground when faced with an aggressive bear.” Only when people broke and ran did bears sometimes give chase and grab someone from behind.
  • Stay alert. Situational awareness played a big role in the study. The study judged 60 percent of attacks avoidable if people had spotted the bear soon enough and behaved properly.
  • Voice your presence in brushy or densely wooded areas. Bear conflicts happened most often there. When such areas are unavoidable, the scientists advised, “group together and make noise to avoid surprising bears.”
  • Depend on your friends. “When rescuers came to the aid of bear attack victims, the mauling ended 91 percent of the time,” the study concluded. There is, however, about a 10 percent chance a rescuer will get injured aiding a companion.
  • Carry protection. “Ninety-eight percent of persons using spray avoided any injury,” the study concluded. “Firearms were effective 76 percent of the time.”
  • And if a bear should get you down and you decide to play dead – the advisable behavior when attacked by a grizzly bear with cubs – lace your fingers behind your neck and try to protect your head. “They focus on the victim’s head-neck region 4.5 times more often than would be expected if the attack site was a random choice,”the study said.

Overall, however, the study suggests that scary as bears might be, the odds of being attacked are tiny.

Bear human-conflicts have increased as Alaska’s human population has expanded, but there are still only 7.6 incidents per year on average in this decade, and the odds of surviving an attack are better than 75 percent.

“Human-bear conflicts are rare events,” the study says, and “undoubtedly,” countless interactions between and people and bears occur without incident.”

A close reading of the neighborhood website Nextdoor and Facebook shows there have so far this year been daily encounters between people and bears in Anchorage, but as of yet only one attack by a bear on a human. The bears have not fared as well.

To date, the Anchorage Police Department, the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have combined to kill six grizzly bears and three black bears deemed threats to public safety, a Fish and Game spokesman messaged Friday.













26 replies »

  1. Craig, correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding that a bear has never left the area and actually remained nearby after being pepper sprayed during a charge? This in itself should be a little disconcerning. I would say if one wants to use bear spray as a first line of defense, have at it, but back it up with a firearm as a second line of defense.

    • Byran: I know of bears that have been sprayed and never seen again. I would describe that as run off. There have also been some bears – most notably black bears – incredibly persistent and reluctant to give up after being sprayed.

  2. Sorry Criag, meant in response to “Time for Change and Truth”. Using my phone and I accidently inserted your name in the response.

  3. First off, a bear, regardless which one is just an animal. Made of myscle, bone, and soft tissue. Not some super animal or any of that nonsense. I seriously doubt a 30.06 will richochet off a bears skull. As a matter of fact, a 30.06 hitting a bear in the head with 2,500lbs of energy, I’d be surprised it wouldnt drop in it’s tracks. A heart/liver/lung shot that bear can run a mile. But, a high powered rifle, and yes, the 30.06 is a high powered rifle will deter any bear with a head shot.
    As for bear spray, well, there are too many environmental factors to take into consideration for that to be effective in my book.
    Craig, I am thinking the .454 in the hands of a skilled user (as we have seen in the past) could stop a charging Brownie. I am all in agreeance with you on the shotgun, but, Id forgo the buckshot. If you think that .454 will not stop a bear, that buckshot wouldnt have a chance. Brenneke 3″ Magnums are canon shot. Within 50yds it will get any bears attention and it isnt bounching off any skulls either. We have seen 9mm, .454, .44, 45 ACP, etc.. all stop and kill charging Brown/Grizzly bears. Luck? Perhaps.

    • depends on the bullet. i once almost got runover by a big bull moose a guy shot in the chest with a .300 Win mag at maybe 10 or 15 yards. it was a straight on shot. the bullet hit the breast plate and just went to pieces. the moose was killed. when skinned and butchered, it looked like shrapnel had gone down either side of the chest.
      there are high-speed, .30-06 rounds i wouldn’t want to trust for use on a grizzly head shot. but i hunted Kodiak deer for years with an ’06 and never had any qualms about stuffing it with 225-grains Barnes bullets as bear stoppers if needed when packing meat back to camp.

  4. I once heard “Doc Holiday” was such a great shot because he spent a lot of money on ammo “practicing” after he quit his practice as a dentist.

  5. Hi Craig,

    I agree there are more bears down in the neighborhoods than ever since I came in the mid-60s, and I don’t think it is just because of more social media getting news of sightings spread. In my first 42 years of residence on Birchwood Loop I saw one black and one grizzly. Three weeks ago I saw two black bears—one the most beautiful cinnamon phase—cross the Glenn heading into Birchwood in a four-day span and last night came close to hitting a grizzly, also heading from the mountain side into the Loop. Thinking of the chance intersection of space and time for me to have been passing the right place at 65 the brief moment out of all the days, hours, and seconds just as these bears crossed, I’m lead to wonder how many others I have no doubt missed.

    Re: your recommendations for bear-pro firearms, you and I know nothing’s as good as a rifle, with shotgun next. You nailed it with the 454 Casul. I used to sell a ton of the short barreled Rugers from the gun counter at Sportsman’s WH. Some power is lost with the short barrel, but it is so much more packable. I used to take buyers over to the holster section and show them a particular holster to buy, and how to adapt it for lightning-fast draw from a chest position that would work when wearing chest waders or carrying a backpack.

    Superb recent article on the Seppala House. I think a great article for you would be on the emerging plans for the Anchorage downtown “mushing district.” If interested, ask and I will steer you to the main guy, plus tell you my impression. No doubt, from my sidewalk stand I have interfaced personally with more of our summer visitors over the past decade than any other person in Anchorage, so have a unique read on what impact/response would be.


    • I do not think a 454 Casul is enough for an angry Brown Bear. Mainly because most people who carry them are generally not skilled in shooting high power hand guns. Also, even though powerful for a hand gun it has almost a thousand pounds less energy than a 30-06 which imo
      is the minimum I would consider for a Brown Bear. If it had to be a pistol I would choose the .500 S&W which with a 400 grain bullet gets around 3000 lbs of energy.
      I personally carry a 12 gauge pump with a six shot capacity and load it with alternating slugs and OOO buck shot. Short barrel and pistol Grip with no stock. Quite light with shoulder strap. Pretty good kick but not noticeable when fired in earnest. And very effective. I know because I had to use it and it worked good. Real good

  6. Old Alaskan Rule: If your dog is running back into camp with bear following, SHOOT THE DOG!

  7. Be wary to the statistics on firearms successes. Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence covered the years 1883-2009, and the question is, how did Herrero and Smith find firearms successes prior to 1970, when the Alaska Dept of Fish & Game began collecting reports of bears killed in “defense of life or property?” Medred’s article notes, ” the state of Alaska has hampered research by refusing to release reports on defense of life and property (DLP) kills after 1990.” At best, the firearms study only included firearms successes from 1970-1990. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of firearms successes did not make it into the study. That skews the statistics, big time.

    Another question is, what standard did Smith & Herrero have for including/excluding firearms successes from defense of life or property (DLP) records? The “methods” for Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska said, “We compiled information on bear attacks.” What about bears killed in defense of property? If someone shot a bear in their chicken coop, did that count as a firearms success?

    This is critically important because Smith, Herrero and other bear spray advocates constantly claim bear spray is more effective than a firearm, and over 60% of the incidents in Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska involved people who sprayed bears that were “curious or seeking food or garbage.”

    Is it reasonable to compare the results of Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska to the results of Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska?

    A 1999 study on bears killed in defense of life or property in Alaska from 1970 to 1996 hints the magnitude of the missing data on firearms. From 1991 to 1996 people killed 375 brown bears and 234 black bears in defense of life or property. On average, the number of bears killed in DLP was increasing year by year, so we don’t know how many bears were killed in DLP from 1997 to 2009. (Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries From Bears in Alaska, by Miller & Tutterrow, 1999)

    The 1999 study on DLPs said, “Most of the persons shooting brown bears or black bears in DLP circumstances indicated that no human injury occurred (98.5% for brown bears and 99.2% for black bears).” In contrast, Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska said, “Bear inflicted injuries occurred in 151 of 269 (56%) incidents.” How did the authors of Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska explain the different injury rates? By claiming, “a study on bear-human conflicts has not been conducted.”

      • One, Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska is an embarrassment to wildlife professionals, a case of biologists behaving like used car salesmen. It should be redacted by the Journal of Wildlife Management. Two, bear spray vs. bullets is a straw man argument, a thinly disguised jihad against firearms. Three, instead of fostering overconfidence in bear spray by spoon-feeding people statistics about the overall success rate for bear spray, agencies should focus of bear spray performance against charging grizzlies. Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska showed that 3 of 9 people who sprayed charging grizzlies. The injury rate would be higher, but the study did not include data on incidents when people who were carrying bear spray did not have time to use it. Four, it’s foolish to pit bear spray vs. firearms. Agencies should give people solid information on how to use both bear spray AND firearms quickly and effectively during a surprise encounter with a grizzly.

  8. It’s unfortunate that we tend to only hear about human/bear encounters when things go tragically wrong. Seems like there is more useful data to be mined from human/bear encounters when things go right (everybody goes home unharmed). But those sorts of encounters aren’t “newsworthy” and so go unreported and the possible lessons to be learned are overlooked.

    • yes, it would be nice to have more data, Pete. it’s always good to have more data. i’ve talked to dozens of people over the years, possibly hundreds, who panicked and ran from bears and nothing happened. i’d love to see more data. i’m not sure running makes any difference unless someone meets a bear in predatory mode and then, yes, it’s going to chase. but if it’s all ready in predatory mode, who knows what would have happened if someone stood their ground.

  9. Not mentioned in this article is perhaps the most fundamental precaution people can take in bear country. And that is – avoid hiking in wooded areas when there is a strong wind. On windy days a bear can’t hear you coming. In tall grass or brush you can walk into a bear before either of you know it. Then it doesn’t matter what you are carrying for protection. You won’t have time to react. And of course, bear spray is ineffective when shot into a 30 mph headwind.

    It was windy in Anchorage mountain valleys when this attack occured. It was very windy the night that mountain biker Petra Davis got mauled. Wind and bear country is a combination that should be avoided.

    • actually, i looked into wind once because it blows a lot in my neighborhood. i could find no correlation, but then as the study notes the reporting on the conditions at the time of attacks is bad.

      my personal experience has been that i’ve run into a lot more bears with no wind or mild wind. the bear biologist Sean Farley and i got talking about that one day, and he suggested there might be FEWER encounters in strong winds because bears rely so heavily on their noses and ears.

      scent swirls in the wind. it’s hard to hear. if you’re relying on those senses to determine where things are, it has to be hard. my experience with bears in wind has been that they’ve been spookier than hell.

      but i’ve sat still in dead air and had bears walk by within 15 feet.

      in fact, now that i think about it, i don’t recall ever having a really close encounter with a bear in high winds. i wonder what the experiences of others have been.

  10. Remember all bears are predatory. I think the recording stats are incredibly inaccurate. Many people used to just Disappear . Bear attacks and deaths are hugely unreported. On both sides . I’ve been attacked 10 times and never reported . My father was probably attacked 20 times never reported . Granted a few of his he pushed his luck . Photography – a bear ripped his pants off . Another time him and a freind thought they were netting a Wolverine in a den . Turned out to be a brown bear . Bear caught in net dragged him 200 yards his buddy shot it off him . 1950s never reported . He has probably 4o death defying bear stories. Lots of times close enough to get slobber on him or worse . He was a magnet. I bet there is less than 5-10% report rate . A 30-06 rifle is to small for safe bear protection as you might only get one shot . From my experience ( lots ) a 338 is minimum but effective. The difference is incredible. I’ve seen 30/06 barely penetrate and bounce of large brownie skulls at 20 yards . My dad has killed a very large number of bears many have run over 400 yards with heart shots from 30/06 . For the average person in my opinion 338 is the minimum safe rifle . One shot does amazing. But rule is keep shooting until they quit moving. Then don’t approach for 20 + minutes or way longer . Obviously these are my opinions but they are tried and true . My dad used to leave starting fluid in multiple places around the farm . He had success with that for bear deterant that way it was always handy . Not sure how it compares to bear spray . I don’t nessasary recommend it . He chased 13 black bears off a bus that were eating union employees lunches with two cans start fluid . One bear took multiple squirts up close . Finally jumped out the back . Guns were not allowed for some reason near pipeline for his crew . Long time ago . Union paid him double pay all day for that 15 minutes work !

    • And just for Steve . No bear meat was ever wasted. We ate every bit . Even livers ect . Ate more brown bear meat than I care to remember. Hits like a rock . Not my favorite. My dad never wasted anything. He spent time on Indian reservation . They ate guts and everything!

      • He never was trophy hunter . Meat only priority. He was listed as top grizzly skull size kill until they moved the determination line . It now includes brownies. He donated the skull to university of Fairbanks. He couldn’t find jaw bone so he substituted a black bear jaw and it fit . Guess that was one big black bear ! I’m sure he told the university . That was 70s . That grizzly was trying to steal his caribou. Attacked him in the dark . Shot it in mouth point blank . Up by ferry .

    • That is about the most amazing story I have ever read. You have personally been attacked by how many bears, 10 was it? And never reported any of them? And your Dad, attacked 20 Times? And you believe that most bear attacks go unreported? Sorry, but this is very hard to believe!

      • Why report? It’s all over time anyone can help . And not like the bears keep phone numbers so cops can contact them ! Do you call someone every time you have a problem? I doubt it . Im sure thousands of hunters and Alaskans in general have violent bear interactions without saying a word except to their friends .

      • By the way that’s just a minor taste of what my dads dealt with on bears . As Steve Stine says truth is stranger than fiction. Always watch your back trail . Bears love to stalk . Especially in the dark . No joke . They are basically as smart as people just better senses . I’ve watched them hunt moose and caribou through binoculars.

      • Alaskans first . Keep in mind an attack doesn’t nessasary Mean any people or any bears were hurt . Example – budy and I had killed some caribou on slope . Couple were down . Of two of us I only had two bullets left . 3 grizzlies approached . We yelled and hollerd . They just kept coming . They wanted to chase us off and then eat caribou maybe add us to the pile . Sow with two -3 year old cubs . The closer they got faster they came . At about aprx 30 -5o yards I fired my 338 into ground in front of them . Instead of stopping They charged . My budy with no ammo quickly started an aggressive flanking manoouver . That spooked them. They didn’t care about gunshot but him circling them made them feel as if they were being hunted . Lots of wolves up there . They took off to a respectable distance to look for other safer gut piles . Were a bunch in the valley . At that point I only had one bullet left with 9 bears in the valley. To say the least it was nerve wracking. Thank goodness my budy had presence of mind to do something unique.

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