Earlier today, Steven Rinella wrote his response to an Instagram he posted regarding bear spray that generated some excitement from commenters. We reached out to Frank van Manen of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team with five questions generated by those comments, we hope you’ll take the time to read through these answers and base your personal choices of bear deterrents off the best information that exists in the world of bear research at the moment. 

1. As a grizzly bear specialist, what is your reaction to Todd Orr’s recent mauling in which bear spray was ineffective at deterring the bear?

As bear managers and researchers, we point out that no deterrent, including bear spray, is 100% effective; Todd Orr’s experience may be one of those exceptions. Although Orr did deploy bear spray, we may actually never know whether there was some effect of it that might have helped reduce the initial impact and injuries. What we do know is that the overall success rate of bear spray is high, as scientific studies have shown (see #4 below). Firearms are really not the obvious choice, particularly because we have seen a number of incidents in which people (the person being attacked or others nearby) were injured or killed by firearms while trying to shoot an attacking bear. There are also recent instances in which an attacking bear was shot at with a hand gun at very close range but not critically hit; this happened to a radio-collared bear and we know it is still alive.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing the hunter, but the point is that the use of firearms under such extreme circumstances of a bear attack is a major challenge even for the most proficient hunter/shooter. An injured bear can become much more unpredictable, and thus more dangerous, particularly within the actual attack itself.

2. How do you and your team of researchers protect yourselves while in the field?

We carry bear spray anytime we go into bear country but I personally have not needed to use it (yet). One reason is that we do everything to prevent encounters during fieldwork, which includes making a lot of noise while hiking, work in teams of at least 2 people, etc. With field captures of bears for research, we carry both bear spray and firearms (and we specifically train every year for firearm use to deter bears); we have effectively deterred aggressive bears with bear spray on a number of occasions, which has prevented us from having to use firearms.

3. What are your best tips for being bear aware in the backcountry?

The 5 tips we typically give are effective, but some are difficult for hunters to follow, so do the best you can with your circumstances:

1) Be highly alert.
2) Make noise and use your voice to warn bears of your presence.
3) Carry bear spray.
4) Avoid hiking alone.
5) Do not run.
4. What resources or studies would you point to someone who counters the effectiveness of bear spray as a tool?

I have attached 2 papers: one on bear spray (2008) and one on firearms (2012) that have studied past attacks and give insight as to the best methods to deter a bear attack; the scientific data are convincing that bear spray is the better alternative, it is 90% successful to deter an attack with bear spray versus 76% for long guns and 84% for hand guns. Importantly, this number does not take into consideration the number of people who are killed or injured when firearms are used in such incidents. Also, bear spray saves bear lives; these bears are simply doing what grizzly bears do, and it is this behavior that is a powerful and humbling reminder of the iconic wildness of places like Yellowstone.

5. What does the research show on the use of firearms as a deterrent for bears?

A key portion of the text from the 2012 paper: “Firearms should not be a substitute for avoiding unwanted encounters in bear habitat. Although the shooter may be able to kill an aggressive bear, injuries to the shooter and others also sometimes occur. The need for split-second deployment and deadly accuracy make using firearms difficult, even for experts. Consequently, we advise people to carefully consider their ability to be accurate under duress before carrying a firearm for protection from bears. No one should enter bear country without a deterrent and these results show that firearms are not a clear choice. We encourage all persons, with or without a firearm, to consider carrying a non-lethal deterrent such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater (i.e., 90% successful for all 3 North American species of bear; Smith et al. 2008) than those we observed for firearms.”