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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.