Dealing with bears


Lars on Sunday investigates the site of a week-old moose kill on the Anchorage Hillside/Craig Medred photo

A second archer has been attacked by a grizzly bear while hunting elk near Yellowstone National Park, but this time bear spray worked to drive off the sow and a cub.

A more important lesson from the attack on fifty-something Bob Legasa form Coeur d’Alene Idaho, might, however, be this: Chose your wilderness companions carefully.

Bear spray is now carried by many in Alaska. Though it has been proven effective, there is still considerable debate over whether it is better or worse than a large-caliber firearm for bear protection.

The spray worked for Legasa on Saturday, but he is giving most of the credit to  hunting partner Greg Gibson.

The duo got too close to a “sow grizzly and her cub as we were moving in on some elk,” Legasa wrote on his Facebook page. “We walked up to with in 12 yards when we all saw each other and before I could even reach for my bear spray she was at full charge.

“I was able to get my arm up to…protect my face when she knocked me over, Greg was only a few steps behind me, and he was able to get his bear spray out and give one shot to the bear which stopped her and she reared up and came towards him, he was able to give her one more blast where she and her cub retreated.”

Legasa suffered significant injuries in the attack. KRTV in Great Falls, Mont., reported the hunter was recovering in a hospital in Bozeman after the attack near Beattie Gulch, Mont., just north of the Montana-Wyoming state line. 

“My arm is broken in two spots where she grabbed on with her mouth and I have a nice couple of scratches on my face where she got me with her claws,” Legasa told the television station.

Less than a month ago,  37-year-old, Wyoming hunting guide Mark Uptain died after being attacked by a grizzly sow with cubs near the southeastern boundary of Yellowstone. 

He was the first person to die after pepper-spraying a grizzly. But the exact deals of what happened in that case are not known.

Uptain was attacked after he an an archery client returned to recover the carcass of an elk shot a day earlier. The adult bear first went after the client and grabbed the Florida man.

Uptain yelled at the bear, which then let go of the client and charged him. The client told authorities he tried to shoot the bear with a handgun the men had brought back with them to the kill site, but it wouldn’t fire.

So he threw it to Uptain and fled on horseback. At some point, Uptain – who had bear spray with him – used it on the bear. Authorities later shot the bear and found pepper spray residue on the carcass, Brad Hovinga, the Jackson region supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told in September.

But when Uptain sprayed the bear is unclear.

Hovinga said Uptain’s body was found about 150 feet from where the attack began, and an empty canister of bear spray with the safety off was feet from his body. But it is possible, Hovinga said, that Uptain had already suffered fatal injuries before he used the spray.

That would make it possible the bear spray worked even though Uptain died.

Proven product

His death rattled some who have come to depend on spray for protection in Alaska. The product is now so popular cases of it can be found on sale at Costco in the summer. It is regularly carried by hikers, mountain bikers and dog walkers on the Anchorage Hillside  because of the state’s healthy population of bears, both grizzly/brown bears and black bears.

The former are far more dangerous than the latter, but the state has a nasty history with black bears. Two Alaskans died in black bear attacks last year.

Though such attacks are extremely rare, renowned bear research Stephen Herrero has noted they cluster in rural Canada and Alaska despite the low human populations in those areas and thus the lower likelihood of bear-human encounters.

“….We don’t know exactly why there have been more attacks in Canada and Alaska, but we speculate that it could be because bears in those areas are living in less productive habitat with periodic food stress, which may predispose some bears to consider people as prey,” he told Science Daily.

The data set is so small and the details on many attacks so sketchy that such a conclusion is highly, highly speculative, but the stories are many of Alaskans encountering black bears that appear to show no fear of humans. The recommended procedure with such bears is to confront them and try to drive them off with whatever is at hand.

Many Alaskans have reported successfully repelling black bears they described as “stalking” them.

Most grizzly bear attacks and fatalities involve sows charging people in clear and deliberate attempts to neutralize people they think are a threat to their cubs. But there are exceptions.

Hiker Micheal Soltis, 44, of Eagle River – a suburb on the northern edge of Alaska’s largest city – was killed by a predatory grizzly with cubs in June. There is no way of knowing whether the bears attacked him as if he were prey, but they treated his body as if it were such.

A 2012 attack in Denali National Park and Preserve, meanwhile, looked like a clear predatory attack. Backpacker Richard White, 49, from San Diego took multiple photos of the bear as it approached him.

While White was at first blamed for getting too close to the bear to take photographs, the photos in his camera showed the bear approaching him to within an estimated 60 yards. There the photography ended. What happened after is unknown.

White might well have been preoccupied trying to make himself “look big and mean” as the bear came closer. That is the behavior the Park Service recommends when being approached by a bear. Friends and family later said the Californian was an experienced backpacker. The grizzly that killed him was shot and killed defending his carcass as food.

Though humans can bluff down most bears – brown/grizzly or black – the technique isn’t foolproof. And White had neither bear spray nor a firearm for self-defense.

He was, it should be noted, the first person ever to die in a bear attack in Denali, where dozens of bear encounters take place every summer. Soltis was the first bear fatality in Alaska this year. Eighteen-year-old  Anthony David Montoya from Hollis, Oklahoma, died in late September after being attacked by a grizzly sow on Admiralty Island, a place long known to the Tlingit Indians of Southeast Alaska as “The Fortress of the Bears.”

Little is known about the attack on Montoya, who was working at a remote, mine drilling site. The fatal attack was the first in associated with the decades-old Greens Creek mine on Admiralty.

Even in the 49th state with more grizzly bears than all of the other states combined, bears attacks are extremely rare, but they do happen.

The issue of whether spray or firearms are better defensive weapon is a personal decision. Bear spray has a proven record of repelling grizzly bears. Up until Uptain died this year, only a handful of people had suffered injuries while using the spray to repel bears, and there were no fatalities.

There are many cases of people shooting bears and then being killed by the wounded animals. Firearms also pose a risk to the shooter and others.

“Readying myself for another attack,” Legasa wrote, “I was able to get my bear spray out of the holster and unfortunately during all the chaos sprayed myself.”

Taking a dose of bear-repelling pepper spray is painful. It makes most people’s eyes burn like it is hard to believe, but the recovery is quick compared to most any injury caused by being shot with a firearm, and there is no known instance of anyone dying from being hit with bear spray.

Bear spray also has advantages in weight (it’s lighter than any reasonable firearm) and ease-of-use (it takes very little training and very little skill to use).

The advantage of a firearm, at least in the hands of a skilled shooter, is that it can be counted on to end the encounter then and there with the bear dead and no worries about whether it might return to resume an attack.

Alaskans should take note that fall seems to be coming late this year, and bears in the Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna Borough areas are still on the prowl for more food before hibernation. A woman living near Elmore and DeArmoun roads on the lower Hillside in Anchorage reported black bears destroyed her beehives over the weekend.

And the abandoned bear cache in the photo above dates to a kill just last week. Judging by the jawbone in the photo and bones at the site, the prey appeared to have been a smallish yearling moose shooed off by its mother this summer or a very large calf of the year. The kill was on the north side of McHugh Ridge on the south side of which 77-year-old Marcy Trent and her son Larry Waldron, 45, died in a  1995 bear attack that rocked Anchorage.

They were hiking the McHugh Creek Trail when they stumbled into a grizzly on a kill and it attacked.

If you stumble on a bear cache – they tear up the terrain around their kill to obtain material to bury their prey – the best idea is to get away from the site as fast as you can. Don’t hang around to take pictures.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story left out the attack on Anthony Montoya on Admiralty Island.









23 replies »

  1. ADF&G is short for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, or what commercial fishers call it: “The Department”.

  2. “If you stumble on a bear cache – they tear up the terrain around their kill to obtain material to bury their prey – the best idea is to get away from the site as fast as you can. Don’t hang around to take pictures.” Craig Medred

    Lars on Sunday investigates the site of a week-old moose kill on the Anchorage Hillside/Craig Medred photo

  3. Not sure why the question is always framed as an “either/or.” Spray is good as a deterrent but, if it fails, as Craig’s own experience shows, once the bear is on you it’s probably shooting time.

    Spray is light, no reason to not carry it if you are carrying a gun anyway. My planning on the subject is, if you are in a group, one person primaries the spray, one (the more experienced shooter presumably) the gun. Do the “look big / make noise” dance and spray if it keeps being curious and closes range. If it doesn’t stop or turn, probably shoot it.

    If alone and there’s time, gun in the awesome hand, spray in the less awesome hand (as a buddy of mine calls them). Same drill, look big and noisy, spray if curious and closing, shoot if spray fails. If it’s a sudden charge from ambush, I’m going to the gun immediately to get it in my hand (if not already carried) so even if I miss, I have a chance to feed the bear a limb and still shoot it.

  4. I was always taught that the primary thing to do in bear country is to make noise…
    Bells on a walking stick, talking out loud as you hike (preferably with a group), discharging a firearm in a safe manner, playing music at your remote cabin, these techniques all help decrease the chance of bear encounters when traveling in their wild habitats.
    When I developed my land in the bush, I would light off a small packet of “salutes” before exiting the jonboat on the sandbar.
    These techniques have helped me stay safe over the years and have led to less bear confrontations even though I spend quite a lot of time in the same woods as them.
    As for sneaking around the brush during hunting season or hiding to get a close up photo, well these practices are never safe as we have also seen in Alaska how dangerous the solo jogger or hiker can be.
    A tree stand or post along an open meadow or swamp is a much safer position to take when hunting moose or elk.

    • A little over 2 years ago, when on a moose stand North of Fairbanks, I witnessed a sow grizzly and two large cubs coming (likety split) along the trail towards me. I wasn’t sure they wouldn’t have taken a trail around this hill (as they were not visible for a bit) and stand until they showed coming right up the hill to the stand. Now I had been calling and breaking brush repeatedly so that bear knew there was a bull moose there and, to me, intended on killing that moose and there was no stalking involved. Had I been on the ground its hard to tell how things would have turned out. When sow spotted me skylined she immediately ran off, expecting a bullet the whole time I expect.
      Anyway, I concur that the safer way is a tree stand but most of my calling is done from the ground and I have taken a labrador retriever along to help with the safety issue. Met a fellow deer hunter on Admiralty Island about 15 years ago who had a golden retriever with him sitting on a deer trail for the same reason. I know that a dog is not supposed to be used for hunting, except for finding a lost animal and then on a leash (big joke, of course), but this is something different IMO.
      By the way, “Alaskan Bear Tails” has a story of Harley Sievenpiper, who was killed while calling deer, over 30 years ago after being jumped by a brown bear. Young Juneau guy with several kids and may have benefitted by a dog-it may just give enough time to shoot the bear.

      • Bill, you know how that story would go. If you were attacked, Game would have said – “the bears were not going after Bill per say but his dog, and in the confusion got ole Bill. So, we are going to look at this as, a sow defending her cubs from Bills menacing dog and not go after the bear.”

        Steve, there is some dispute on bells. Noise obvioisly.

      • Unlikely Bryan! Were the dog a “menacing dog” your scenario could work but my situation is one of man and dog sitting there calling for a moose (hardly one that could call the dog as menacing).

      • Bill, I think he is referring to Monday Morning quarterbacks claiming without evidence “well, bears are always harmless, so the dog must have provoked the attack, so it was the victim’s fault, not the bears.”

        The folks who fall on the Disney end of the rational scale. One end is “predators are slavering beasts seeking only to feast on human flesh,” the other gets their animal knowledge from Disney films.

      • Matthewcarberryblog, while you may have a point about the Disney end Bryan specifically said that “Game would have said.”
        Now I took that to mean Game folks who are not of that same ilk IMO.
        At any rate, Bryan can certainly give his own taking on his own point!

      • Bill, Matthew was right. My response was tongue and cheek and he is right. There are 2 sides to a bear attack, those that blame you and those that blame the bear. My point was that I’d venture to say if you were attacked with an unleased dog that AGF would then be on the “your fault” side. I mean, why aren’t you allowed to have a dog off leash in Denali, let alone have one on the trails? As for AGF and killing a bear, my impression is you are guilty until proven innocent. Of course, I was throwing out a hypothetical and I apologize if I wasn’t more clear. But, since we are talking about sprays, guns, etc.. for defense, will a dog hinder or help during a bear encounter and if you are killed would the dog automatically be a consideration for such attack? Sorry Craig, didn’t mean to go off topic but Bill wanted an explanation.

      • OK Bryan, how could Matthew be right when he was talking Disney folk and you are talking AGF (whatever that is?). And now you are saying it was tongue-in-cheek.
        Just what are you saying? That some sort of authority for wildlife interactions automatically blame the dog?
        Your post made no sense, to any reasonable person considering it IMO. If you feel the Alaska authorities automatically blame the dog, just say so but please give some back-up. There are instances of dogs bringing back bears to the master but that is a completely different story.

      • Bill, on a small cell. Meant short for Alaskan Fish and Game but, used AGF instead. Sorry. I think what I said was pretty obvious (ok, except the AGF 🙂

      • Bryan, what you said was not obvious and you clearly did mean Alaska Fish and Game (not the Disney folks Matthew thought).
        So…………………………………what is it exactly you believe that Alaska Fish and Game would say (in your scenario) and why do you think that? ie: what reasoning do you have for your belief? Note that I’m not of the opinion that there wouldn’t be an investigation into what occurred but you seem to know what the investigation would determine in advance. I’m wanting to know why?

    • just so you know, biologist Tom Smith actually did some experimenting with bells on the Alaska Peninsula. bears showed no response whatsoever. he concluded the sound just didn’t register as something about which they could concern themselves.

      human voices work better. “hey bear” would probably be better than bells:

      i’ve personally had a very mixed bag with sounds. spooks some bears, not others. i’ve fired into the ground in front of few bears that looked at the ground curiously while reacting as if not having heard the sound at all.

      the latter seems possible with one big bang failing to register fully. “did i just hear thunder?” the packet of salutes would definitely be better in my opinion.

  5. In Montana the bears are near or at saturation of available habitat. These are the 5th or 6th generation of upland grizzlies that have had no history of hunting pressure, ergo no fear of humans. Woe betide anyone in the lower 48 who shoots one, whatever the circumstance. Your life will be turned upside down during the investigation, which can last years.

  6. Mace is chloroacetophenone, a form of tear gas. it’s an irritant.

    pepper spray is capsaicin. it’s an inflammatory agent.

    Mace is significantly weaker than pepper spray and has a bad record of failure on some people, especially druggies and drunks.

    it was put into use because it was thought to deter people without hurting them much. it doesn’t inflame the eyes or skin or cause temporary blindness or breathing difficulties.

    most police departments now use some form of pepper spray. there’s a good outline here:

    the varying degrees of effectiveness for pepper spray generally relate to dosing levels. and it is definitely limited in the wind. it’s big advantages are that it doesn’t take any skill to use, and it’s light.

    i’d venture to guess most people can’t hit a charging brown bear with a handgun. bears are damn fast.

  7. Bear Sprays don’t work on every Bear just as mace as varying degrees of effectiveness on each individual.Large handgun or 12 ga. shotgun are a persons best chance for survival.And the wind won’t blow the lead back in your eyes lick the sprays are prone to do.

    • Agree with Wolfass. Just look at the bear at Turnagon this Summer that was shot by Game and it had a face full of spray. I can see the effecticeness of spray in this situation with 2 guys and it is used to buy time or breakoff an attack. But, it might be wise to follow-up with a more lethal aporoach. It is my understanding (read a report, may be old) that even though spray has been used during an attack, the grizzly has never left the attack area after being sprayed.

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