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Pepper-spray may deter bears better than guns

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March 26, 2008

BYU biologist Thomas S. Smith with Polar Bear cubs and their unconscious 'mother' - 'If sh...

BYU biologist Thomas S. Smith with Polar Bear cubs and their unconscious 'mother' - 'If she were conscious, she'd be holding me,' Smith said. Photo: Thomas S. Smith / BYU

March 27, 2008 New analysis from Brigham Young University suggests that those traveling in bear territory may be better off leaving the guns at home and packing pepper-spray instead. The bears, we expect, agree.

This advice - along with some other invaluable hints for dealing with bears in the wild - comes from associate professor of wildlife science Thomas S. Smith, who along with his colleagues studied 71 bear spray incidents over 20 years in Alaska, where there are an estimated 150,000 bears. The findings showed that cans of bear pepper spray, which are available for around $30-$40) were effective in deterring aggressive bear behavior in 92 percent of the cases. Smith's previous research showed that guns were effective only about 67 percent of the time. Understandable, this is in part this is due the fact that in trying to shoot straight with a 1200 pound grizzly bearing down on you is not an easy task, particularly when it takes an average of four hits to stop the attack.

"People working or recreating in bear habitat should feel confident they are safe if carrying bear spray," Smith said.

The study also establishes the effectiveness of the spray itself (though the data did not allow a comparison between brands). "Working in the bear safety arena, I even found a lot of resistance to bear spray among professionals," Smith said of the product. "There was no good, clean data set that demonstrated definitively that it worked, so that's why we did this research."

The research also found that 35 percent of incidents studied involved hikers, with 30 percent involving bear management activities and that 60 percent of the incidents occurred between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Seventy percent of the incidents studied involved brown (grizzly) bears, 28 percent involved black bears and in the first documented cases, two involved polar bears. It also showed that use of the spray will rarely be effected by windy conditions and of the 71 incidents documented, only a small percentage resulted in any level of harm to the user with 10 incidents of minor irritation and two of near incapacitation.

Interestingly, the study also found that the practice of spraying tents and camp equipment as a deterrent is likely to backfire, with bears actually being attracted by this method in 11 cases.

During his 16 years of field work Smith has never had cause to use the spray himself - proof that using caution and knowing what you are dealing with is the best deterrent of all. Indeed Smith believes that one of the key reasons that the spray works is that it stops the user from running a way - a bad move when faced with bear attack.

Smith and co-authors on the paper are Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary; Terry D. Debruyn of the National Park Service, and James M. Wilder of Minerals Management Service, report their findings in the April issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Via Brigham Young University.

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007.   All articles by Noel McKeegan
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