Spray failure?

The discovery of an empty canister of bear spray near where 46-year-old Dan Schilling died in a bear attack on the Kenai Peninsula last week is raising questions about the popular deterrent.


The Alaska Department of Fish and Game today revealed the safety trigger on the spray had been removed, the canister itself was intact, and there was evidence of pepper residue in the area.

All of those things would lead to the conclusion Schilling discharged the spray, but there is no way of knowing whether the spray hit the bear or how much aerosol was in the can to propel the active ingredient –  capsaicin – toward the animal.

Canisters of bear spray, like fire extinguishers, can lose pressure over time. Some companies now put expiration dates on their containers. A woman in the Yukon Territory, Canada, a few years ago reported a nasty experience with an expired canister that oozed fluid instead of spraying it at the troublesome black bear she encountered.

Yukon wildlife officials who later tested a collection of old canisters and found they didn’t spray as far as fresh cans and one of there canisters also did nothing but ooze, the CBC reported.

Unidentified bear

The bear that killed Schilling not far from his home is believed to have been a grizzly, a more aggressive animal than a black bear. Fish and Game officials today revealed they Wednesday killed a female grizzly/brown bear and three female black bears found in the area.

DNA earlier extracted from samples of bear hair found near Schilling’s body linked both a female grizzly and a female black bear to the site. Tests are now underway to see if the DNA from any of those samples matches that of the bears killed Wednesday.

There has never been a deadly bear attack linked to the failure of bear spray to repel an attacking bear, but questions about the spray’s effectiveness have been raised in recent years.

A Wyoming hunting guide was found to have used bear spray on a grizzly before he died in 2018, but Wyoming officials investigating that attack concluded it most likely he was unable to use the spray until after being mortally wounded.

Thirty-seven-year-old guide Mark Uptain had a semi-automatic handgun with him at the time as well, but it was not handy when the sow and a cub attacked while he and a client were butchering an elk.

The client went for the Glock “that his guide had left with their gear a few yards uphill,” it was reported at the time. The movement distracted the sow and her club. The female bear then attacked and mauled the client before Uptain managed to distract it. The bear then attacked the guide.

“For some reason, (the client) could not get the handgun to fire,” the account said. “When the female grizzly diverted her attention away from Uptain and toward the (client), he tossed the pistol to his guide.

“(The client), 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….”

No one knows what happened to Uptain after that because there were no witnesses to his death. The situation is sadly the same with Schilling.

Highly experienced

A veteran hunter, Schilling was reported to be clearing a primitive trail into the mountains near the ghost town of Sunrise when the attack happened.

Sunrise is only about 30 air miles from Anchorage but on the opposite side of the Turnagain Arm fiord which makes the community a long drive away by road. It is thus considered remote despite its proximity to the state’s heavily populated urban core home to more than half the Alaska population.

Schilling liked to hunt the mountains to the west of the Hope Highway which runs past Sunrise and on to its end at the old mining community of Hope. Building a primitive trail into those mountains helps make them more easily accessible in a land of few trails.

Writing for the website Huntin’ Fool last year, Schilling reported he was the only federal, subsistence hunter to kill a caribou from the Kenai Mountain herd in 2018. 

That herd inhabits hard-to-reach alpine tundra above the brush in the Kenai Mountains. Alaskans who qualify as “rural residents” under federal law can get a special permit to hunt these caribou for food, or what Alaskans call subsistence.

Few bother to obtain the permits because of the difficulty of the hunt. The state also holds a drawing to distribute a limited number of permits to state resident hunters who don’t qualify for the special, federal privilege.

Twenty-five state permits were issued for the hunt – DC001 – last year, according to Fish and Game. Only 12 people reported hunting. Only three of them reported killing caribou.

Many hunters who win the permits discover how tough the country and decide not to hunt. Fish and Game today described the area in which Schilling’s body was found as “remote, with challenging terrain and limited access.”

The photos that accompanied Schilling’s story in the Huntin’ Fool illustrated the laborious nature of his Kenai Mountain caribou hunt and were a testament to his hardiness.

“During my 30-plus years living in Alaska,” he wrote, “I’ve undertaken many successful caribou hunts, but this one was perhaps the most unique. It was certainly the most expeditious.

“Although my lovely wife, Gyongyi, was not with me when I killed the bull, she was a big help packing out the remaining meat and antlers. Her assistance saved me much hard work and I owe her many thanks.”

The photos accompanying the story also show Schilling carrying a handgun in a chest holster while packing out the caribou meat. Most Alaska hunters carry some sort of firearm when packing meat because of the risk the smell of dead game could bring bears.

Firearms or spray?

Some if not many of the same people carry bear spray in other situations because it is lighter, easier to use, has enjoyed an excellent reputation for producing results, and is less dangerous if accidentally discharged.

An Anchorage woman who was worried about bears and borrowed a handgun for protection seriously injured herself in an accidental shooting last year. 

Meanwhile, many Alaskans have now successfully used spray to repel bears. Mark Price of Seward is but one of those.

Still, there has been considerable debate about spray since Brigham Young University professor Tom Smith and noted Canadian bear expert Stephen Herrero two years ago published a study titled Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880 – 2015. The study led the scientists to conclude that “entering bear country without (protection) is unwise.”

The study endorsed bear spray. Some have since argued data was cherry-picked to make spray appear better for self-defense than a firearm.

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

Firearms, on the other hand, were used in self-defense 236 times, and in more than 75 percent of those cases stopped the bear, the study said. But they failed 25 percent of the time because people were too slow to react to a charging bear, missed when they shot, merely wounded the bear, or the firearm failed.

“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,” Smith and Herrero wrote.

One of the main criticisms against the study has been that it undercounts the number of bears that hunters kill with firearms given the significant interactions between hunters and bears in Alaska during the state’s long hunting season.

Hunters – who regularly sneak around in the woods looking for moose, caribou and deer – are the people most likely to have a dangerous, close-range encounter with a bear. An unknown number of those bears are subsequently shot and killed, then reported as hunting harvests.

Hunting kills are not included in the database on bear attacks and could number in the hundreds if not thousands over the course of more than 100 years.


Dogs also came up in the Smith and Herrero study, and Schilling had his dog with him when attacked. The first indication that he’d run into trouble was when the dog returned to his home near Sunrise without him.

Friends who went to investigate found his body at a scene that made it clear to them there was no hope he had survived.

Among people familiar with bears, which includes a broad cross-section of Alaskans, there has been considerable debate about whether the dog might have played a role in the attack.

Herrero was involved in a 2014 study that cautioned dogs might well spark bear attacks. After examining 92 black bear 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.

The Alaska study Herrero conducted along with Smith also 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 (one case).”

But the study found 19 cases in which “dogs defending persons were successful in terminating the mauling.”

There are indications the attack on Schilling was predatory – that the bear that killed him treated him as prey. There are no records of a dog bringing back a bear that then decided to kill the dog’s owner for food.

Shilling is the first person to die in a bear attack in Alaska this year. There were no fatal attacks in the state last year, but two people died in 2018 – both attacked by grizzly bears – and two people died in 2017 – both attacked by black bears.

Around the world, the number of fatal attacks on humans bears and other large carnivores has been going up even as the number of people visiting wild areas has been going down.

Researchers reported that was in part due to large carnivore populations increasing internationally and in part due to people putting themselves in dangerous situations.

But the study concluded the risks of death to anyone from an attack by a wild carnivore remain tiny.

“Although rare compared to human fatalities by other wildlife, the media often overplay large carnivore attacks on humans, causing increased fear and negative attitudes towards coexisting with and conserving these species,” the study said. 

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20 replies »

  1. Craig, I’ll comment on your bear mauling, bear spray, and dog post since I’ve had some experience in bear country trying to find an ecological niche for hatchery salmon. Still haven’t found the hatchery niche but a few bears and I have found each other in doing so.

    I suggest that those darn Covid-19 masks and bear spray are similar. They both help us do what we need to do.

    “Armed” with a “medical mask” we demonstrate a respect for an airborne contagion and the personal space and health of all. Mask’s remind us and others to do what we need to do – safe distancing, hand washing, etc. – to survive this global pandemic.

    “Armed” with “balls-in-a-can” we let the bear know we are human, we hold our ground, stand tall, stand together, act and speak assertively, and have a deterrent. We don’t run, act like an easy meal, or do anything to injure the bear and piss it off, like, say, with a bullet. We let the bear know that we are human, that we mean no harm, and that we understand they might need a little time to assess the encounter and amble off. Bears are amazingly fast and powerful.

    If the bear bursts our “safe distance” bubble, we spray. The hissy, orange, irritating, stinky spray usually deters the bear. They love stink probably more than they hate burning eyes. Anyway, hopefully, this distracts the bear enough so we have the time to get to safety and enough time for the bear to realize that we are not an easy meal and that life and food is better somewhere else.

    Fortunately, bears are not out to kill us. We share a common interest. Neither wishes to be injured or killed. We can injure and kill each other, but, why do so for a gamy meal and the risk of not making babies? We’ve survived by respecting each other’s space and risking injury only if starved or protecting young. The little “go along to get along” bird has landed on both our shoulders since time immemorial. We’ve survived by practicing “save distancing”. Even bear-on-bear fights are rare while grandstanding and false charging are common – unless moms are protecting young from another bear. There is a survival advantage to not being injured or killed. Anyway, I don’t think the bear in this story was protecting young or starving.

    I also don’t know what actions the man did to keep a curious, ever-hungry, bear from becoming a predatory bear, if that was the case. However, I do know that closing hatcheries and keeping our streams full of spawning salmon will help feed bears and prevent predatory attacks.

    I also don’t know the dog, but the dog could have could have contributed to the mauling. The dog chases the bear, the bear chases the dog, the dog runs back to his/her master, and, in the spray-infused melee the bear mauls the man. Bears are incredibly strong, powerful, and deadly. The dog, seeing the bear distracted, then runs home for safety. The bear goes “what just happened” and where’s the tasty salmon berries I was eating before that rude interruption?

    My experience is that the best “bear” dog (for safety) is the dog that never leaves your side, that doesn’t bark, that never calls attention to itself. Just a trusty, loyal, early-warning-system dog. The dog whose keen smell, hearing, and sight usually senses a bear before you do. The dog who lets you know there’s a bear with a low growl and a stiff, attentive, alert stance. These dogs are hard to find.

    I’m sure the investigation will help us understand what really happened. Until then, be a good human and have a deterrent. Thanks, Ben.

    • Ben, “Fortunately, bears are not out to kill us” – I’d say a predatory bear is just that, out to kill us, which was obviously the case with Schilling and so many other cases before him. The reality is that not only are they out to kill you, but to eat you as well.

      What is this jibberish? ” We let the bear know that we are human, that we mean no harm”. Do you actually believe that bear can reason? Especially a grizzly, which is driven by INSTINCTS and not emotions.

      So spray coddles the poor bear while a bullet pisses them off? I am pretty sure a Brenneke 3″ Magnum will do more than piss them off.

      You’re not related to a guy named Treadwell are you?

    • Ben, I was ok with your comment ( not necessarily agreeing with all of it and thinking your analogy with the masks was political and really not germane) until you stated that “ bears are not out to kill us”. Where in the world did you come up with that conclusion? It is indisputable that is simply not true. That is exactly what some bears are trying to do. Not all of course but plenty enough.
      If you are in remote Alaska, you are in their back yard. And at their mercy. If carrying a canister of spray makes you comfortable, do so. But know that there is still a debate about spray vs a fire arm. In the Hope bear attack it appears that the spray may not have been effective: perhaps if the victim had a 12 gauge or other powerful weapon there may have been a different outcome.
      My choice is to always pack a weapon capable of stopping a Brown Bear and also carry spray. When I have had the time I sprayed. It worked all but one time. I was glad I had the weapon when it didn’t.

      • AKF,since we’re clearing trail,I’ll make my stand with a chain saw with a short 12” bar.
        Fairly certain that not only will the attack have a good chance of being avoided,but I’ll find something vital.

    • One could argue the masks and spray are the same in a different regard: They provide a false sense of security.

      Around bears that might not be a bad thing. Animals sense fear. It’s to a human’s advantage that a bear senses him/her as an animal that could cause trouble. We appear to agree on that.

      As for dogs, I prefer one that is quiet except when it’s better not to be. There are a lot of variables in every bear encounter, including that run thing. The data on that issue isn’t worth shit.

      I’ve personally talked to hundreds of people who’ve admitted to running from bears. I don’t recommend it, but none of them got chased or at least got chased that they know of.

      And, of course, as with so many things with bears, there can be situations in which the best idea is to run. Every encounter is a different dance.

      The vast majority of bears lack any desire kill us. The same is true of our fellow humans. But there are the dangerous ones out there.

      • “One could argue the masks and spray are the same in a different regard: They provide a false sense of security.” – Craig Medred

  2. I agree with you Bob Butler on the vertical design of the canisters. I think it’s pretty weak. Something with a true pistol grip and a horizontal load would be better, imo. Maybe something like a caulk gun where you could just load new canisters into it. Of course you’d need to redesign the canisters so you’re not shooting straight into the ground…

  3. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee officially stepped out of the bear spray market, taking a neutral stance regarding competing companies’ claims of which brand best repels a charging grizzly.

    In particular, the IGBC dropped its “six-second” recommendation for how long a can of bear spray should spray. UDAP, a bear spray maker based in Butte, had filed legal action claiming the interagency group had no grounds to say one spray duration was better than another.

    Another Montana-based bear spray company, Counter Assault, advertises its cans as meeting “recommendations suggested by bear biologists and wildlife specialists of the IGBC” for lasting 7.2 to 9.2 seconds. It notes that UDAP’s cans spray for 4 to 5.4 seconds which it claims “does not meet IGBC recommendations.”

    Hmm, let me see, several miles from the cabin, salmon stocks running low, bad year for berries, while walking/working alone on a primitive trail, um no thanks.
    Be damned if I am putting my life in the hands of 4 or 5 seconds. We all know that a predatory bear compared to a defensive bear acts differently. Will 4 or 5 seconds help with a defensive charge? Perhaps. Will it prevent a predatory, determined grizzly bear? Doubtful.
    Did a false sense of security contribute to Mr. Schilling’s death? Perhaps..
    I think pepper spray under the right circumstances (which is not always the case) can distract and buy a few valuble seconds. Plus, judging from the article above you really do not know what you are getting.

  4. The older canisters are useful for family and friends to acquaint themselves with the width and effective distance of the spray. Practice with any “weapon” is essential for a successful outcome.

  5. What would be interesting to know, is did they kill those bears defending themselves during their investigation, or are they just shooting at any bear in that general area.

    I would assume if the man goes out hunting and lives in that area, his dog isn’t a dog that goes around stirring up and bringing bear back to him. Just happens, close quarters and wrong place wrong time. Sometimes luck isn’t on your side. Sometimes there’s just bad situations with odds stacked against you, and you don’t get to tell that almost bear story later in life.

      • For sure…. I think a person can try to do the smart knowledgeable things to help their odds, but in the end, the reaction and mindset of the unpredictable, sometimes unknown bear plays a major roll as to how things end.

        Going into the thick bush 5 feet to the left or right might make all the difference, but how do we know this, when we cannot see this. I spooked off a grizzly sow and cub earlier this week, maybe two feet to the left going through the thick bush would have made her react totally differently. I knew there was a bear or something back in there, only later did I find out it was a sow with cub. In this case with my pups keeping quiet and me making lots of noise crashing through the bush worked, maybe next time not so much.

        Another scenario, did the bear a week before that, decide to only pound the ground, woof at me, and allow us to retreat, because the pups sounded off on him initially, and because I did have good pups that don’t antagonize the wildlife with me. Would he have just plowed me if I hadn’t of had the pups, then again, he could of just been a very polite bear that gives warning pups or no pups.

  6. “But the study concluded the risks of death to anyone from an attack by a wild carnivore remain tiny”.

    “Anyone”? Really? Seems like it depends on where you live and how you spend your time. People will point to the “data” and say you’re more likely to be killed in a car crash than killed by a bear. But, again, who is the “you”? Most people – and way more people – spend more time in their cars than in serious bear country. What about those of us who spend more time in bear country than in our cars? Are the odds the same for us? When I’m biking the 4wheel trail from Browns Lake to Killey River, I’m not thinking about cars but I do have bear spray strapped to my handlebars.

    • The odds definitely go up for those out in bear country a lot. I see about a bear a week, maybe more, and often enough fresh bear sign to make me extra alert. And I’ve been chewed on by a grizzly.

      But I’d still judge my personal odds tiny. I worry more about getting hit by someone texting or otherwise looking at their phone while I’m on the road bike. It is astounding how many people now drive around while looking at everything but the road.

      I always carry bear spray on the bike and find these bags handy. I have had to do a couple quickdraws and was able to get at the canister very quickly.

      And the plus is the company was Alaska born.

      • I have always wondered why a more ergonomic style of spray canister has not been produced.Having been involved in a few accidental discharges of spray has me super paranoid about it. How about a design like a pistol handle with a positive lock safety? Probably not going to shoot yourself with that one.

  7. Looks like state biologists are out for blood as they have killed 4 bears already looking for the guilty bear.
    Wonder if this will turn out like the incident in Eagle River a few years ago…multiple bears killed and none match the “bad bears” DNA.
    Gotta love Alaskan “game management” practices these days….seek and destroy!

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