Bear spray fail?

sow with yearling

A grizzly bear sow with yearling in Alaska/National Park Service photo

The inevitable has happened in Wyoming where a hunting guide who doused an attacking grizzly bear with pepper spray is dead.

It is impossible, however, to say definitively that the bear spray used by 37-year-old Mark Uptain failed.

“We know he didn’t initially use the bear spray,”  Brad Hovinga, the Jackson region supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said today. It is possible, Hovinga said, that Uptain was fatally injured before spraying the 250-pound sow Friday afternoon.

Uptain’s death marks the first time anyone has died after pepper spraying a grizzly, but an Anchorage woman working in the Alaska Interior near the Pogo Mine was last year killed by black bear that had been sprayed.

Prior to that attack, wildlife researchers had identified dozens of cases in which the spray worked near flawlessly. After a close examination of 66 cases from 1984 to 1994, Canadian bear researchers Stephen Herrero and Andrew Higgins reported that “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. 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.”

All of the injured people survived. The success of bear spray led former Alaskan Tom Smith, now Brigham Young University wildlife professor, to conclude that people hiking in bear-filled Alaska should carry spray as a standard practice in case of bear encounters. 

But no weapon for use against attacking bears is fool-proof. Herrero and Smith have documented multiple deaths involving people carrying firearms.

Dead bears

After the attack on Uptain and client Corey Chubon from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., the Wyoming grizzly and a yearling-cub were located and killed by Wyoming wildlife authorities. Hovinga said bite marks on Uptain’s body implicated the cub in the fatal mauling as bite marks implicated a cub or cubs in a fatal mauling in Eagle River, a suburb just outside of Anchorage earlier this year.

After 44-year-old Michael Stoltis was attacked, killed and fed upon by a family of grizzly bears, officials of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided that in the interest of public safety it would be best to find and eliminate those bears, but the bears have never been reported to have been found.

Hovinga said Wyoming officials feel lucky to have found the sow and her cub and eliminated them both after what appears to have been an unprovoked attack. A partial account of what happened was provided to authorities by Chubon.

He told wildlife officials that the bears appeared while he and the guide were butchering an elk shot in an archery hunt a day earlier.

The hunter had killed the elk in the evening, but he and Uptain had been unable to find it until the next day. There was no sign the bears had found carcass before the hunters, Hovinga said.

The men had time to gut, skin and quarter the elk before the bear appeared. Uptain was removing the antlers when the healthy, approximately 10-year-old sow came running through a clearing above the men, reported Mike Koshmrl of the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

“It just came on a full run,”  Hovinga told the reporter. “There was no hesitation.”

“We heard rocks tumble and out of nowhere two grizzly bears just started charging,” Chuban said in a taped interview with Orlando’s News 6.

The cub appears to have been following the sow who led the charge. The bears first ran into Chuban who was knocked down and grabbed by the leg.

“She swung me around in the air,” he said in the interview. Uptain at that point was yelling at the bears, which led them to turn from Chuban to the guide, who was carrying bear spray in a hip holster.

When he got it out and when he managed to deploy it is unclear, Hovinga said. He said Uptain’s body was found about 150 feet from where the attack began. An empty canister of bear spray with the safety off was feet from his body,  but authorities couldn’t tell exactly where or when he started spraying, or what happened after the spray was used.

Authorities know the sow had been sprayed because of the residue left on her fur.

“We could smell it, and we could feel it,” Honvinga said.

Uptain’s body had not been fed on. It is possible, Hovinga said, that the spray drove the bears off after the initial attack and that Uptain then managed to stumble away to where he died.

“We can’t say the spray didn’t work,” he said.

Hunter calls Uptain hero

Chuban fled the scene as Uptain was being attacked. Hovinga said it’s very easy to second guess that behavior, but it’s possible that if the unarmed hunter had stayed he, too, would have been killed.

Koshmrl reported that after the bears turned away from Chubon, he “went for a Glock (handgun) that his guide had left with their gear a few yards uphill. For some reason, (Chubon) could not get the handgun to fire. When the female grizzly diverted her attention away from Uptain and toward the Floridian, he tossed the pistol to his guide. Evidently, it didn’t make it to Uptain, who was a lifelong elk hunter, small-business owner and family man.

“Chubon, whose leg, chest and arms were lacerated by the bruin, ran for his life. His last view of Uptain, which he relayed to investigators, was of the guide on his feet trying to fight off the sow….

“Bolting from the chaos, Chubon huffed it uphill to the duo’s horses, mounted one and rode uphill to a ridgeline near the crest of 10,258-foot-high Terrace Mountain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Amazingly, he caught a (cell phone) signal to phone authorities, who flew in to rescue him.”

Chubon in the television interview called Uptain a hero for saving his life. Hovinga reported the Glock was found near where the attack started. It appears to have landed out of Uptain’s reach.


















19 replies »

  1. Investigation concluded the fatal injuries were inflicted before the bear spray was used and the bear spray ended the attack. While bear spray is not 100% (nothing is) , this is not an example of the spray failing but of the user failing.

    • Bill: As the story says in the second paragraph: “It is impossible, however, to say definitively that the bear spray used by 37-year-old Mark Uptain failed.”

      It is likewise impossible to say definitely that the spray worked. There are conflicting views on whether Uptain sprayed the bear before or after he died.

      What is clear is that Uptain’s Glock 10mm – the first line of defense – failed due, as you put it, to “the user failing.” Glocks have an unusual “safety.” It is built into the trigger and is activated by finger placement thereupon. A lot of people, myself included, are suspicious of the safety of that safety and thus carry the weapon with the chamber empty.

      Uptain’s Glock was so carried. The lack of a round in the chamber requires that in order to fire the weapon, someone has to rack the action to chamber a round.

      In this case, the guide’s client didn’t do this because it appears he didn’t know how, and he them might have actually disabled the weapon by hitting the magazine release thinking it was a safety. The resulting was the magazine fell out and the Glock became useless. It’s a sad story around.

      And the main point is that no matter what kind of bear protection you decided to carry, it isn’t any good if you don’t have it immediately within reach or if you don’t know how to use it.

  2. It’s important to understand that bear spray zealots want you to focus on the overall success rate for bear spray–2/3 of incidents involved people spraying brown and black bears that were “curious or seeking food or garbage”–so you don’t notice that in 3 of 9 incidents when people sprayed a charging brown bear, they were injured. (Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska).The sample size for the study was so tiny–72 incidents total–the numbers have no statistical significance. People who count on bear spray for protection are essentially crash test dummies, human guinea pigs. Given that Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska and Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska used different methodologies and reviewed incidents that posed vastly different levels of risk to people using guns and firearms, biologists who compare the results of these studies are guilty of egregious scientific misconduct.

    • Egregious scientific misconduct or simply good intentions? There does seem to be bias there to the ideas that a.) people can’t seriously injure themselves with bear spray; b.) most people aren’t competent to use guns; and c.) spray doesn’t leave a wounded bear roaming the country.

      I agree the data base is small for drawing any kind of broad conclusions.

  3. Both of them should of been armed, and ready, but another lesson here is to, Choose your hunting partner wisely.
    I wouldn’t have left him, but I also would of been prepared.

    • Zip lots of truth to what you said but at times you never know the courage of someone you are with until they are put through the fire . Also guides don’t get to choose their hunting partners. Guide probably was overheating with head down working on the elk with as much clothing off as possible and didn’t have a lot of time to react . Due to Alaska’s large bear numbers and their ability to approach very fast or quiet (stalking a person) both first hand info. I keep my rifle as close to arms length as possible and if I have bear concerns or am in heavy brush will have my second keep his fire arm ready and watching. A hugely important fact that is missed by all – this was archery hunt . Clients hate guides who accidentally/ on purpose put a bullet hole in their wounded animals. It violates archery ethics also disqualify the animal from pope and young books . If it was archery only hunt Wyoming state law probably prohibits killing the animal with firearms. So client would not be packing and guide would not be thinking firearm first . As client would probably not pay full amount if guide backed him up with a rifle to stop the elk . Thus guides pistol was kept in harder than normal place to access . It’s very common for guides to put a bullet into escaping animals after they are wounded by a client. But not on archery only hunt . I have no idea how Wyoming works but Alaska has expectations. Guiding is Dangerous work . Especially going after wounded grizzly on archery hunt.

      • Good Alaska guides are pretty savvy but not infallible. So many dangers . Mountain Falls , rocks , small planes , wounded animal recovery, constant use of loaded firearms , knives , lack of gun safety in clients, fast water during boating, fast treacherous unmarked river crossing, weather , infections or germs while working in remote areas for months straight I’m sure I skipped plenty. guides wives probably often prepare themselves for bad news. My hat is off to this man . Good guides are a disappearing breed .

      • Opionion, I disagree slightly with your observation. I think, under the circumstances, that a firearm should have been first on their mind for defensive protection. The area they were hunting in is known for a concentration of grizzlies.
        “Wyoming – Can I carry a firearm while archery hunting during the archery season? Yes. However, the law does prohibit the use of firearms in taking or finishing off any big or trophy game animals during the special archery season.”

      • I understand a guide, hunting with someone of not first choice in these circumstances, however the customer had a choice of who to hunt with. The guide did not prepare properly, it could of easily been the customer dead because of this, instead the customer ran maybe partly because of this.

        I’m not saying I’m some kind of super hero, but I am saying that I would of had my partners back in the situation and to be able to do that I would of came prepared and might of went down for it too, like I would hope they’d do for me.

      • One of the things I learned in the Army is that there is *ALWAYS* one person posted as security.

  4. Craig,  Great reporting in the ongoing saga of man vs. bear. It would have been a bit easier to follow if the name correlations had been more precise, but overall, a sad but well-reported story. Thanks, Pat MalcolmMadison, WI

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

  5. Also, why were they counting on a 4 second spray and a secured, unchambered pistol to save both their lives under those circumstances. Let’s face it, worst case scenario should have played through their mind that night and either a 45-70 or 12ga should have always been within reach. I guess his wife will be asking all these questions.

  6. Not to Monday morning quarterback this incident but, how many mistakes can one make in an hour, next to a fresh elk carcass, exposed all night, in an area with a high concentration of grizzly bears? Sadly those mistakes claimed a life. While bear spray has its merits, my belief thinks to ward a charging grizzly off a fresh kill and save your life one may be asking too much. Of course leaving THE pistol zipped in their bag didn’t help either.

  7. Well, this anecdote is certainly enough to disprove all of the evidence of spray’s effectiveness.

    – Someone somewhere I’m sure

    At least he had the spray on his person, the pistol should have been as well. And I’d be willing to bet it was being transported chamber empty. It’s survival equipment, everyone in the group should have been run through where it is and how to use it. Just like spray, the EPIRB, the first aid kit, and whatever communication device is being used.

    My more particular criticism, and something my military training burned into me, is, no matter how unwieldy, you don’t leave your weapons out of reach when there are known threats around.

    • ditto: on both of those latter observations. tools people don’t know how to use are useless, and you never leave your weapon out of reach.

      i’ve always kept a firearm close when butchering wild game in the field in Alaska.

      • It is a good idea to have a capable firearm handy when ever you are in the Alaska wild. And it is important to know how to use it. Pepper spray is good when it works. But when a bear is fixated on a kill nothing but a large caliber bullet will keep it off. Pepper spray would probably be useless under those circumstances.

      • Yep, it’s as simple as that; if you’re butchering meat in bear country, every decision, every movement, has to be with the full understanding that your life might very well hang in the balance.

Leave a Reply