Banff bear deaths

The hopefully protective cloud of aerosolized pepper/Sabre rontiersman Bear Spray

Questions raised as to use of bear spray

Update 10/5/2023: A friend of the dead couple has told the Calgary Herald and other Canadian news organizations that they were apparently attacked while in their tent, and that one of two canisters of bear spray found at the scene was empty, raising new questions about the effectiveness of bear spray when truly aggressive bears are involved.

Bear attacks on people in tents are even rarer than bear attacks in general, but this attack in one of the wildest parts of Canada’s Banff National Park is reminiscent of a 2005 attack along Alaska’s wild Hulahula River on the North Slope that left Richard and Katherine Huffman dead.

The Huffman’s had a .45-70, lever-action CoPilot rifle in the tent, a rifle specifically designed for bear protection in Alaska, but were unable to use it.

An investigation revealed Richard appeared to have pulled down the lever on the rifle to put a cartridge into the chamber but died or was seriously injured before he could bring the firearm into play, Jonathon Waterman later wrote in National Geographic Adventure magazine. 

There is obviously no perfect solution for self-defense against a grizzly which decides to go after people in a tent. Tents themselves have been shown to be somewhat protective – most bears avoid attacking them, but they are also large, visible attractions that can draw the attention of a passing bear.

The most effective means of keeping bears away from tents is a portable electric fence. The lightest of them weigh less than two and a half pounds but cost several hundred dollars. But they have been proven to work well in parts of Alaska were sightings of grizzly bears are an everyday occurrence.

As for those who chose to carry firearms in the wilds of Alaska – where a firearm can be considered both a means of bear protection and a potential survival tool – a handgun might be preferred over a rifle or shotgun both due to its lighter weight and its ease of use in close quarters.

Handguns, however – no matter what size, shape or caliber one chooses – require considerable practice at the range for a shooter to become proficient enough to use for bear protection or taking game in a survival situation.

Original story:

The cloud of journalistic bumbling that surrounded the grizzly bear killing of two people found dead in Canada’s Banff National Park over the weekend was beginning to clear on Tuesday, but new questions were being raised about bear spray.

The CBC and other Canadian news outlets reported Parks Canada said two cans of bear spray were found near the remains of backcountry campers Doug Inglis and Jenny Gusse, both 62 from Lethbridge, Alberta. 

But whether the spray was used or not was left hanging.

There has been considerable debate about the degree of effectiveness of bear spray for several years now. The pepper spray designed to be shot into the faces of bears from a small, fire-extinguisher-like canister has worked in the vast majority of cases and is now widely used across North America.

Still, questions have lingered about whether it will work in all situations with all bears.

From the reports coming out of Canada, Inglis and Gusse might have encountered the most problematic of fall bears, an old and lean animal in need of more calories before hibernation. The bear was described as a female more than 25 years old, in only fair body condition but with her teeth in poor condition.

A disproportionate number of bears fitting that description have shown up in defense of life and property shootings involving hunters in Alaska in the fall.  Four deer hunters staying in a public-use cabin on Admiralty Island in the state’s Panhandle spent three days and nights being terrorized by such a bear before they finally killed it in November 1980.

One of the hunters, Fred Shelton, said the bear had little fat on its body and was so old most of its teeth were gone.

A similar bear attacked, killed and ate California animal rights activist Timmy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003 in a tragedy that made international news and sparked a documentary film.

That bear was a 28-year-old animal with broken canine teeth. It was described as “very old but not in remarkably poor condition.”

There have been some suggestions bears such as these might be more inclined to look at humans as potential prey, but the number of such bears is so small given the relatively few bears make it into their 20s and that bear attacks are, in general, so rare it is impossible to draw any solid scientific conclusions.

Did they or didn’t they?

And the biggest question now surrounding the latest attack is whether the victims were able to use their bear spray to deter the bear.

It is unclear whether the lack of this significant piece of information is because reporters unfamiliar with bears and bear attacks weren’t smart enough to ask the question, or whether it is tied to the behavior of Parks Canada, which has tried to control the tone of this story from the beginning.

That led to such jumbled reporting at the start one almost needed a translator to figure out what happened.

“Parks Canada said it learned of the attack via an alert sent around 8 p.m. on Friday from a satellite device inside Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada,”  the New York Times reported when the story first began to unfold.

There are no satellite devices that send bear alert messages. InReach, Spot, Defy and other GPS satellite locators now entering a market once dominated by Spot and InReach do have buttons that can be pushed to summon a rescue, but none have an “I was attacked by a bear” button.

The most likely scenario from the start was that one of the two people attacked by the bear was able to communicate with rescuers via satellite messaging before dying, which Inglis’s uncle – Colin Inglis – confirmed is what happened in the Tuesday CBC report.

He explained that he received an SOS message from his nephew’s Garmin InReach late Friday that said “‘Bear attack bad.”

The message sparked a rescue effort that was delayed by bad weather that prevented helicopters from flying. A Canadian Wildlife-Human Attack Response Team (WHART) had to hike deep into the park and by the time they reached the scene of the attack, the victims were dead.

“While at the site,” Outside magazine, which is supposed to know something about the outdoors, reported that the rescuers “also encountered a grizzly bear that, according to the release, ‘displayed aggressive behavior.’ Parks Canada officials euthanized the bear.”

“Euthanasia,'” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.”

This is what you do with your beloved dog. You take it to a veterinarian who injects it with an overdose of pentobarbital, which puts the dog to sleep after which, in a matter of minutes,  heart and brain functions stop.

So-called WHART teams do not carry pentobarbital. They carry firearms for self-protection.

Fed by media releases

Countless news organizations, however, followed the carefully scripted media release from Parks Canada, describing a “bear exhibiting aggressive behavior” being euthanized. This can only be described as a sanitized description of events designed to try to downplay what happened.

The CBC, to its credit, also cleared this up on Tuesday.

“The bear was shot and killed hours after the emergency response call was received when Parks Canada staff arrived at the scene and the bear charged the response team,” the CBC said.

The bear met the same fate as the one that killed celebrity wannabe Treadwell and Huggenard in Katmai on Oct. 5 exactly 20 years ago. It was shot when it confronted would-be rescuers.

Treadwell and Huggenard, it is worth noting, had no real weapon to use against the bear that attacked them. Treadwell thought it was wrong to shoot or pepper spray bears.

An audio recording that captured the sounds of the attack recorded the bear mauling Treadwell and his pleading with Huggenard to hit the animal with a pan, a pitiful weak weapon to use against a brown/grizzly bear.

The Banff couple was clearly better equipped to deal with a bear attack, but still did not survive.

CTV News in Calgary, Alberta on Tuesday reported “the couple and dog mauled and killed by a grizzly bear in the backcountry of Banff National Park late last week did everything right, Parks Canada says.

“They had the appropriate permits.

“They had bear spray.

“They’d hung their food properly.”

Those details would certainly indicate the couple did everything right in complying with park regulations. Whether they did everything right when the bear attacked – if they even had time to do anything – remains unclear.

Whether they fired their bear spray, and whether any residue from it was found on the dead bear, is a rather important detail.

Bear spray, like a firearm, doesn’t work unless you use it. And it’s possible everything happened so fast they never had a chance to use the spray. The cans might have been in backpacks hanging on trees when the bear attacked or put away in a tent.

Bear attacks – one of the rarest dangers in the outdoor world – can happen very, very fast. This is the way nature works. This is a world wherein the law of nature as defined by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century still applies – kill or be killed.

Nature, said Hobbes, is a state of war, of “all against all”. And as a result, life for the individual in nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This is something easy to forget, at least in the comfortable, internet-connected Western world far removed from nature where the version of nature to which most are exposed is sanitized because some government authorities think it too brutal to be discussed frankly and honestly.







24 replies »

  1. Good article except that a key piece of information about bear spray was not mentioned. Bear spray will only work if it is sprayed into the eyes of a bear. Just like a round fired from a firearm, the aim and impact point must be precise to be effective. If the bear spray does not get into the eyes, it is no more effective than spraying whipped cream. There are cases of bears returning to a location where bear spray has been discharged and lick up the spicy seasoning.
    I am a bear mauling survivor and have over 35 years of backcountry as a bear guide on Kodiak Island.

  2. The fact that this story is so troubling makes it an outlier in my mind. If they had discharged the bear spray the “rescuers” would have known for sure, because that stuff makes a huge mess and for a long time. I mean, the dog died. This attack must have just a total mess. A pistol of some kind might have been a saving grace for these people, or maybe even an electric bear fence around the tent. In any case speculation is probably all we will ever get.

    These stories remind me of the irony of the Scout Motto I had growing up, “Be Prepared”. We were always unprepared for the unexpected, which more often than not was always happening to us up here in Alaska.

  3. I’m considering a bear fence in addition to spray for my future trips into bear country. This is the stuff of nightmares. I really feel for these people and their dog. 

  4. What if there has not been an adequate test regarding bear spray ?
    Has the reported successes been against bears who were not going to actually attack or eat anyone? 
    Just bluff charges or perhaps just curious bears? . 

    How many solo  people have chased a bear off a bear kill with bear spray? 
    That would be a partial test . 

    Or better yet find reports of people deploying spray after the mauling begins. That would  be a good test . 

    Its possible the spray is just giving people confidence. I’ve watched an unarmed man chase 4 nearly full grown grizzlies away from 4 caribou his buddy just killed. 
    He flanked them like a wolf. 
    Body language is everything in the primitive world. 
    ( his budy only had one bullet left after an in ground warning shot that didn’t deter bears an iota) 
    It defies reason to think a brown bear who will take a moose hoof in the chest risking extreme injury or death  would truly fear a little spray if he was actually intent on killing a human. Idk 

    What if spray is just a false sense of security? 

    • It has been tested, but not on bears intent on attack. ADF&G biologists working Kodiak fish weirs years ago raised serious questions about how well it would work on a truly committed bear, given the bears they doused were learing to dunk their heads after getting sprayed, wash the spray off, and go back to snatching fish off the weir.

      And, of course, as reported here, a Canadian geologist had quite the problems using the spray on a determined black bear. It’s clearly not perfect, but then we’ve had one woman, also as reported here, who borrowed a gun as bear protection and ended up shooting herself in th leg. Fortunately, she survived.

      I think everyone well familiar with bears would agree with your observation about confidence. Most bears will shy away from a confident human or humans. I once drove one off a dead deer on Kodiak Island. The hunters with me, who I told needed to go back and get the deer they’d foolishly left out overnight, thought I was nuts. But it was a young bear, and I was pretty confident he wasn’t going to try and take on anyone.

      And I was armed….

      My personal experience with warning shots in such situations is that they are worthless unless you can spray the bear with rocks or gravel. Otherwise the retort is so loud but so short that I don’t think it registers with a bear anymore than a thunderclap, and why would a bear go running at the sound of a thunderclap?

      Lastly, as to a false sense of security, I’d say the creation of a confidence factor out weighs that in those timid around bears. And we already have too many with a false sense of security around bears. It’s sort of what killed Timmy Treadwell.

  5. Parks Canada sanitized the press releases. Did “euthanized” come from Outside mag or PC?
    Having a holster/belt with gun/can, especially in camp, is strongly advised.

  6. Early on in a death investigation, law enforcement usually does not divulge all facts.  It seems “Parks Canada” PR team took over here, & sanitized the early press releases. Did “euthanaized” come from Outside mag or PC?
    Camping in a remote wilderness, during fall season, means wearing a holster/belt with gun/can attached at all times, especially in camp.

    • “Euthanized” came from Parks Canada and media organization after media organization regurgitated it. Some for the bear charge being described as an “aggressive bear” and the message as coming from a GPS unit. Turns out, according to a friend of the dead couple, they SOS’ed Garmin and messaged they’d been involved in a bad bear attack. So someone was alive for awhile after.

  7. I personally know 2 instances where dogs bought aggressive animals back to their owners. One a grizzly and the other a moose. Both had young that they were “protecting”. Both were just a couple feet away when finally killed. I’m sure there have been many similar instances where dogs “found” trouble and brought it back…

    • Agreed. I know of several such cases as well, and several others where it was the opposite, and some that were neutral.

      I’ve had a dog walk past a grizzly seemingly without noticing when we happened to be on a trail between it and a moose with all the hair on her back standing up. I would not have noticed the bear if not for that, and by the time I looked to wear the moose was focused and noticed the bear, we were in a spot where it seemed like the best idea was to just keep motoring as if we hadn’t seen the bear.

      I dont know whatever happened with the bear and the moose, but the bear clearly ignored us.

      I also had a lunatic lab drive a grizzly off a kill in a willow thicket when we were wandering swamps way and the hell up the Twentymile River drainage one duck season. It was a very tense moment, but in retrospect it was probably better the dog got to the bear first rather than my walking in on the kill to find myself facing a bear at a matter of feet. All the noise provided a pretty good warning there was a BIG F***ING PROBLEM.

      Who knows what happened in Banff. Dog could have caused the problem. Dog could have died trying to defend the owners. Dog could have runoff at the get go only to be killed when it came back looking for the owners.

      Pretty sad all around. Hopefully the Canadian investigators on this will do a better job of piecing the attack together than the PR mouthpieces did of providing public information.

      • I know without my pups I would definitely be more oblivious as to where all the bear were out here. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is nice to know where they are as long as you have good pups who can read and react to each situation wisely. A couple years back it seemed like every time we went out they would spot one for me. I was like geez, really, again, come on guys I was on a beeline, and now I have to alter again.

        One thing I’ve learned though is that you don’t waste any time looking around and assessing the situation when the pups become alert. You set up, get ready, then assess what to do next, because of the quickness of it all.

        They sound like a real nice couple who were experienced. Unfortunately sometimes the odds of the situation are stacked against you in a way. I’m wondering if the attack started and the spray was used after the damage was done to keep the returning bear away. Either way, condolences to their family and friends.

    • I’ve had a dog bring a mother bear back on me once when she was young, but a dozen times over her lifetime she found bears ahead of me on the trail and chased them off or let me know they were there. Bears and dogs don’t mix and my hunch is normal behaving bears keep away from the trouble of dogs if they hear or smell them.

    • Hard to know. Lots of possiblities. Could have been attacked, injured, bear left, texted and thought the bear was gone only to have it combe back to kill them. Could have much the same scenario after spraying. Hopefully we’ll eventually find out. Parks Canada’s handling of this whole thing is rather disgusting. Political correctness getting in the way of simply explaining what happened.

  8. Of course they did but anti gun CBC does not want unarmed Canadians to think their cans of pepper spray are ineffective…
    The “experts” continue to say bear spray is effective when most of use know it’s a low probability of success at best.

    • The data would indicate the probability of success is greater than low, but it’s not perfect. And one does have to wonder how much the anti-gun views of the Canadian government influenced the bizarre “reporting” of what happened, only part of which can be blamed on today’s media which doesn’t really do the reporting. It has become “get me rewrite” for government handouts. Pretty sad state of affairs.

      • Fully agree on the state of “state” run journalism…If it’s not printed on a government press release then it didn’t happen.
        I personally would not hike through grizzly country without a firearm…we all know how well the NOLS tactics did years ago.

      • This clip answers some of the questions raised. Seem like good people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      • Thanks. Shade of the HulaHula attack. And it sounds like the spray proved less the perfect.

        Interesting, too, we need to hear all of this from a friend of the dead couple instead of Parks Canada. WTF?

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