An aerosol spray may be the best protection that hikers, fishers and hunters can carry in bear country, according to a wildlife expert at Brigham Young University.
Tom S. Smith, associate professor in the plant and wildlife sciences department at the Provo school, is a co-author of a report in the Journal of Wildlife Management, summarizing records of human-bear confrontations in Alaska going back 20 years. Their finding: Bear spray, a potent combination of chemicals shot from an eight-ounce can, stops a charging grizzly bear in its long-clawed tracks. Same for black and polar bears.
Though the spray can temporarily incapacitate a bruin, it's not deadly, as noted by one manufacturer's Web site: "Animals and people temporarily experience intense burning sensations, which wear off in 30 to 45 minutes. Counter Assault is nonlethal, has no ozone-depleting chemicals, and causes no permanent damage to the animal or person sprayed."
"I've worked in Alaska on bears and bear safety issues and bear-human conflict for 16, 17 years," Smith said during a telephone interview. He and his colleagues just want to give the best information they can, he said. The colleagues, according to BYU, are Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary; Terry D. Debruyn of the National Park Service; and James M. Wilder of the U.S. Minerals Management Service. The report also relied on an earlier study of a decade's worth of data.
The findings are controversial as some people and agencies were unwilling to rely on "something like bear spray," he said. Advocates for carrying guns in bear country said spray can't stop a bear and that the spray would disperse in the wind without bothering the creature.
"Others say it'll just put you out and the bear will just have a seasoned snack," he said. "We wanted to see what the record would speak to."
The study examined 71 human-bear conflicts involving spray, as well as 11 incidents where people misused bear spray.
The misuse includes such mistakes as squirting the spray on tents or other camping gear, thinking it would work as a repellent. "They found out it actually attracted the bears."
Smith said the spray was 100 percent effective with polar bears, although there were only five incidents involving the great white carnivores. Among black bears, the spray was about 92 percent effective, and with grizzles, about 92 percent effective.
"It does turn bears, and it does buy you time to get away and resolve the situation," Smith said.
The key to success is that a can of spray on one's shoulder or hip can be activated pronto. "People have a very short response time" when confronted by a bear. Grizzlies "don't even think. They go into an aggressive mode with charging, attacking."
It takes awhile for a person to level a rifle, get into position, aim, lever a shell into the chamber, click off the safety and pull the trigger. Meanwhile, the snarling bear bounds toward the victim.
A survey of firearm use in such situations shows that "about 67 percent of the people had the desirable result," he said. Not encouraging, compared with 92 percent or better with spray.
At close range the chance to respond can be only a split second. A lightweight spray can in hand can quickly blast "a cone-shaped cloud," Smith said. No need to take much time to aim, as it's almost certain to hit the bear.
But with a rifle, a person not only has to ready it but needs to "have a fairly good hit." Several shots could be needed to bring down a big bear, and that takes more time.
While people were concerned that the wind could render the spray useless, of the 71 cases analyzed, that never happened. In thicket, scrub or forest, he said, "it's usually not that windy." Also, the chemical erupts faster than 70 miles per hour.
"It's forcefully ejected out of the can, and that overpowers the wind effect."
In five incidents, users had experienced burning sensations from spray, but none of them were incapacitated and all the bears turned away. With the bear turning, a person can simply turn back, too, and walk out of danger.
"There's a two-edged sword here," Smith warned. "On one hand, we would like to see people using the product more. ... On the other hand, we don't want to gin up the fear of bears unnecessarily."
Utahns should not go looking for trouble with the idea the spray will protect them, and they certainly should not blast bears for no reason.
As far as he and his family are concerned, Smith would be pleased to invest in bear spray and have peace of mind while outdoors, he added.
"I'm not going to empower some four-legged bear with a brain the size of an apple to make decisions for me about what my future will be like, or even if I'll have a future."
While Utah black bears are not as fierce as Alaska grizzlies or polar bears, they are dangerous."These bears, they're not 400-pound chipmunks," Smith said. "They can really chew a person up, and they have."