Photo Courtesy Of BYU
Tom S. Smith, associate professor in the plant and wildlife sciences department at BYU, holds up a temporarily knocked-out family of polar bears. A study he co-authored shows that a small can of bear spray can stop a charging animal.

PROVO — Conventional wisdom isn't always based on common sense, and sometimes isn't even based on real data, especially when it comes to animals of mythological proportions like bears.

BYU wildlife biologist Tom Smith wants to change that.

A new study suggests that one of the most commonly suggested deterrents against bears in the wild — guns — actually won't protect people any better than not using a gun.

"It really isn't about the kind of gun you carry,” he said. “It's about how you carry yourself. We need to respect an animal that could potentially take our lives."

Smith, who has studied bears in the field since the early 1990s, has heard his share of stories about how to deter a bear attack — anything from people putting their hands above their head to shooting blanks from a shotgun. None of those actually work very well and some are actually dangerous.

Books, as well as a lot of passed-down lore, suggest that guns can scare off a bear or stop a bear in the middle of a charge. Some suggest loading a shotgun with blanks as well as live rounds. Some advocate a rifle rather than a shotgun. But none of them had any data to back up the claim.

"It was clear a lot of the practices that we had were not thought out or based on science," Smith said.

Smith and his colleagues looked at 269 incidents involving humans and bears in Alaska and divided them out in terms of who used a gun, and who had a gun but didn't use it. What they found was that there was no statistical difference in terms of injury or death between those who used their gun (229) and those who didn't (40). 

"We're seeing more and more people in bear country with guns," Smith said. "Yet guns, for most people, are not their best option. You don't even need a gun if you behave appropriately."

This isn't the first time Smith has had a study showing that guns aren't as effective against bears as generally believed. In 2008, Smith released a study saying that bear spray is more effective than guns. 

Part of the problem is that shooting accurately is very difficult in a terrifying situation like having a giant animal charging at you. Even if you do kill the bear, that's still a problem, given declining populations and the the loss of what a bear can contribute both economically and ecologically.

"It's a conservation issue in that we'll see needless bear mortalities," Smith said.

His studies, taken together, show that nonlethal deterrents like bear spray are actually safer for humans and bears, as well as more effective. He calls the situation a two-sided coin.

"On one side, human safety is a huge issue. On the other, we're having bears blown away for no good reason," he said.

Smith suggested that taking the appropriate precautions and carrying yourself in the right way are the most important things. He compared it to putting on your seat belt when driving — there is no "best" way to be ejected from your car in an accident. The best thing is to be prepared to begin with.

"There is nothing in this study to contradict common sense," he said.

Smith is an associate professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU and conducted the study with Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary, Kathryn R. Johnson of the Alaska Science Center, and Cali Strong Layton, an undergraduate at BYU, also a co-author. It will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.