The Kind of Bear Spray You Use Matters

How to Hold Bear Spray. Photo NPS Diane Renkin

How to Hold Bear Spray. Photo NPS Diane Renkin

As a visitor to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, you’re naturally curious about bears. You’d like to see bears, but not up close and personal – that’s more than a little scary.  You’d like to do some hiking in and around Yellowstone, ranging from maybe half an hour’s walk, to a full day. Maybe you’re more ambitious and plan on a backpacking trip. You’ve heard that pepper spray is a good deterrant to bears, both black and grizzly. Heck, you already have a little keychain canister of pepper spray, so you’re good to go, right? WRONG !

A charging grizzly bear is NOT the same thing as a mugger on a street corner, or even a charging pit bull. A grizzly bear can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and can outrun an Olympic sprinter, so you need a “bear” pepper spray deterrant that’s up to the job.

What Kind of Bear Spray is Best?

The Sierra Club’s conservation organizer Monica Fella said to make sure that the canister:

-Says the product is made for stopping or preventing bear attacks.
-Contains at least 7.9 ounces of spray.
-Contains 1-2 percent capsaicin/capsaicinoids.
-Can spray a minimum of 25 feet.
-Has a minimum spray duration of 6 seconds, and is EPA registered.
-Is immediately at hand in a belt or chest holster. It doesn’t do any good in a knapsack.

Canisters smaller than this may not last long enough or spray far enough to stop a bear’s charge.

Fella said she worries that visitors to bear country might rationalize the purchase of smaller canisters, when shopping for pepper spray.

“You really need the bigger canister,” she said.

How to Hold and Shoot Bear Spray

Unlike a gun, bear pepper spray does not have to be aimed precisely to stop a charging bear. The bear pepper spray makes a hanging fog in the air, and when the spray hits the bear, or visa versa, it causes immediate irritation in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat and lungs, temporarily disabling the bear. According to experts, there is no better way to stop an attack by an aggressive grizzly.

University of Calgary grizzly bear expert Stephen Herrero analyzed dozens of human-bear encounters and found bear pepper spray to be 94 percent effective in deterring aggressive bears.

Of course, bear pepper spray is not a substitute for staying alert and taking basic precautions. In the backcountry, hikers should exercise good judgment and follow recommended safety precautions, such as making noise and traveling in a group – not alone.

Bear pepper spray should only be used if you are charged by a bear. Point the canister towards the charging bear, slightly downwards, and if possible, spray before the bear is within 30-40 feet, said Fella. Do not use bear pepper spray to harass or chase animals out of your yard. Call your local wildlife management agency to assist you.

To help keep backcountry recreationists safe, the Sierra Club has a program to provide free inert bear pepper spray training canisters for use at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) hunter education courses in the region. The Sierra Club has purchased these canisters to encourage proper use of bear pepper spray for hunters who enjoy their sport in grizzly bear country, and to take proactive steps towards reducing human-bear conflicts.

Gary Clutter, a big game hunter from Bozeman had a face-to-face encounter with a grizzly while hunting a few years ago, and bear spray saved him from a dire situation. “I caught the bear (with bear pepper spray) full in the face when it was four feet away. It was like it hit a wall. The grizzly turned and ran so fast toward her cub she ran over it,” Clutter said. “Then, cub and sow were gone. This worked exactly the way it was designed to work. The bears didn’t die and all I’m out is a can of bear pepper spray.”

The Sierra Club donation will allow MTFWP to conduct hands-on training in the proper use and safety of bear pepper spray. The program will provide enough canisters to reach more than 1,000 hunter education participants in more than 10 locales in southwestern Montana in the next year. Sierra Club hopes to expand this pilot program in the coming years to include more state hunter training programs throughout the lower 48 states.

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