On April 15th in Bozeman, Montana the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) will take public comments on its plans to reduce grizzly bear mortality in the Yellowstone region. Last fall, big-game hunters in the Yellowstone region were forced to kill 13 grizzlies in self-defense. To reduce bear mortality, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) want hunters to use bear spray. One, bear spray would spare the bear’s life. Two, in theory, bear spray offers hunters better protection than a firearm.
That theory is based on false claims about bear spray research.
And let’s not forget that grizzly bears often injure hunters. When a grizzly charges a hunter, the hunter’s life is on the line. If a firearm is a hunter’s best tool for self-defense, he or she should shoot the bear. If bear spray is a better choice, use bear spray.
The notion that bear spray is a better bet than a firearm took hold in 2003 after Chris Servheen wrote a “fact sheet” for the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service titled “Bear spray vs. bullets.” Servheen claimed that according to Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero, “a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are used versus when bear spray is used.”
The IGBC and bear spray advocates claim that research by Herrero (“Field Use Of Capsicum Spray As A Bear Deterrent,” 1998) and BYU professor Tom Smith and Herrero (“Efficacy Of Bear Spray Deterrent In Alaska,” 2008) shows that bear spray is more effective than a firearm.
In November 2008 I emailed Herrero and said, “I don’t recall any discussion about firearms, or any data on firearms, in the 1998 research on field use of bear spray that you published with Andrew Higgins. Did you publish something else prior to 2003? Is the USFWS claim about your research valid, or bogus? To the best of my knowledge, there’s no peer reviewed, published data on firearms. I know Tom Smith has data for Alaska, but I don’t think he’s published it yet.”
Herrero replied “there’s no published data yet [on firearms] but Tom and I are working on a paper.”
No data on firearms.
The IGBC has no legitimate basis for comparing bear spray to firearms.
People who claim research in Alaska shows that bear spray works better than a firearm haven’t read “Efficacy Of Bear Spray Deterrent In Alaska.” The study includes data on the activities of the people who used bear spray. Out of 69 incidents, “the largest category involved hikers (35%), followed by persons engaged in bear management activity (30%), people at their home or cabin (15%), campers in their tents (9%), people working on various jobs outdoors (4%), sport fishers (4%).”
Conspicuously absent from the list where big game hunters charged by a nearby grizzly.
Bear spray research does not suggest that bear spray is an alternative to a firearm for a hunter who gets charged by a grizzly. Bear spray research tells us that bear spray is a good last line of defense for non-hunters.
When it comes to using bear spray, people tend to overlook a crucial difference difference between hunters and non-hunters. Hunters in grizzly country often use the “two-hand/ready carry” to hold their rifle—which precludes using bear spray. How does the IGBC expect a hunter facing a charging grizzly to use bear spray while holding a rifle in his or her hands?
Of course some common rifle carries only require on hand. In theory, a hunter facing a charging grizzly could try to operate bear spray one-handed. But the preferred technique for using bear spray is to use one hand to lift the Velcro flap that secures it in a holster, while removing it with your other hand. Using bear spray one-handed would take practice. Hours of practice. It would take enough practice to overcome a hunter’s ingrained response: shoot the bear. Is bear spray a realistic option for hunters? Are there some situations where a firearm is the only choice, and other situations where bear spray would actually be the best tool for self-defense?
When the IGBC executive committee met back in November 2008 I asked them to form a “Bear spray or bullets advisory committee.” I wanted them to include Herrero and Tom Smith. I recommended biologists in Alaska who do firearms and bear spray training for the Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service. I suggested a retired biologist who happens to be an NRA firearms instructor—he does bear safety training for University of Alaska-Fairbanks staff and students doing research in bear country.
The IGBC never deigned to respond. Instead, the IGBC continues to mislead the public about bear spray. The IGBC continues to put hunters at risk. The IGBC should work with hunters and firearms instructors to answer the bear spray or bullets dilemma.