Safety In Bear Country

More than any other group of outdoor recreationists, hunters need to know how to protect themselves in bear country.

“Hunters are the single largest category of bear-caused injuries and fatalities, simply by the nature of what they do,” says Tom Smith, a wildlife biologist who has spent twenty-plus years researching bears. Smith, along with bear-attack authority Stephen Herrero and three other biologists, recently published a major study on what happens when people with guns (mostly hunters) mix it up with aggressive bears (mostly grizzlies) in Alaska.


A firearm encounter was considered “successful” if, one way or another, it ended the bear’s aggression. By these terms, when someone was able to get off at least one shot, firearms succeeded more than three-quarters of the time (84 percent success rate for handguns; 76 percent for long guns). However, in a substantial number of cases people did not or could not get off a shot. Even the “successful” conflicts often came with a price: 122 people were injured, 15 of them fatally. Additionally, 103 bears were wounded, and 161 bears were killed. In other words, 56 percent of firearm users were injured in the encounters, and 61 percent of the bears died–sobering numbers for those who hope to simply shoot their way out of trouble with an aggressive bear.

An Aggressive Bear

Guns do save lives in bear encounters and should certainly be used if necessary, hunters are well advised to also carry a hip-holstered pepper-spray deterrent, which they should be ready and able to use as a first-choice self-defense option whenever that is feasible. (Smith’s earlier study on bear spray showed that it was highly effective for stopping aggressive grizzlies, none of the spray-users were killed, only a few suffered light injuries, and there was no permanent harm to the bears.)

Beyond that general–and important–finding, Smith also looked at specific aspects of gun-bear conflicts. For example, do warning shots work on close-in or aggressive bears? According to the study results, in 58 incidents where people fired a warning shot, the bear broke off the attack only 34 percent of’ the time.

“So,” Smith concludes, “one-third of the time warning shots worked, and two-thirds of the time they did not. I tell people that the problem with warning shots is that largely, with a 66 percent failure rate, they don’t achieve the desired result, and now you have one less cartridge. One guy shot three warning shots with his .30-06 and then, guess what, he only had one bullet left–and no backup ammo in his pocket. He ended up killing the bear with his last bullet, but only after it was mauling his companion. Not a great strategy!”

On the other hand, some experts argue that there are times when a warning shot is, well, worth a shot. There was those 34 percent of bears in Smith’s study that did, in fact, break off their attack, for example. As is often the case with bear encounters, much depends on the precise situation. In places like Kodiak Island and the greater Yellowstone Park region–where many grizzlies have learned or are learning to equate the sound of a gunshot with downed and possibly the snatchable game, or a savory gut-pile left behind by a hunter–a warning shot might seem more like a dinner bell than a deterrent.

But in other areas, where bears are not habituated this way, a warning shot might be worth trying if, first of all, there is time for one. That isn’t likely if the bear is close-in and charging. However, many “encounters” do not involve charging bears. With an approaching bear, or one hanging around in uncomfortable proximity, there often is time to try a warning blast–assuming, per Smith’s caution, that you have ample ammo. As Alaska biologist Larry Van Daele has pointed out, these kinds of encounters occur fairly often in.

As Alaska biologist Larry Van Daele has pointed out, these kinds of encounters occur fairly often in Alaskan bear country, but are seldom reported or logged into the kind of historical record that Smith and his colleagues used as their data source. Possibly then, warning shots–where suitable for the circumstances–might have a higher success rate in actual practice than the study’s numbers indicate.

This concern connects to another of Smith’s points: “Bears aren’t always charging when they’re being aggressive. Bears can just methodically walk up to you, and that’s pretty darned bad when they’re doing that. It would be a mistake to imply that people are only at risk when a bear is charging.

One thing we’ve seen with bears, is that if you can shock them out of their current mode, then they’ll reassess and most times they will leave.”

Sometimes the effective “shock” is a loud noise, or a warning shot, or a hissing cloud-blast of stinging pepper spray. Less ideally, the shock can also come in the form of a wounding bullet. This raises another often-discussed question: Is it true, as we usually hear, that “a wounded bear is a more dangerous bear,” one that will attack more savagely? Smith found otherwise.

“What happens more often than not is that when bears are wounded, they leave. They’re not out to come after the human at this point; they leave. When this finding came out during the study, it surprised me.”

The specific data on this are worth a close look, however. As stated in the paper, “Of the 103 incidents where bears were wounded, a positive outcome (e.g., the bear halted its aggressive behavior) occurred in 59 incidents (57 percent), and negative outcomes occurred in the remaining 44 incidents (43 percent; the bear’s aggressiveness was undeterred).” The researchers also wanted to see if there was any difference in a bear’s behavior if the attacking animal was shot before it made contact with the victim, versus if it was shot after making contact. The results suggest an important distinction in these two situations. When a bear was wounded before making contact with the intended victim, it broke off the attack 65 percent of the time. However, when the bear was wounded after making contact–for instance, when it was already mauling the victim–the animal broke off the attack only 35 percent of the time. So, two-thirds of the time a wounding shot did not stop an attacking bear that was already on its victim.


“That’s a problem with all of this,” Smith admits. “You just don’t know for sure what [the bears] are going to do. You can talk in generalities–and that does have value–but every case is unique. And that’s a real problem that must always be kept in mind with this whole subject of bear safety.”

If it’s impossible to predict exactly how an individual bear will respond in a specific conflict situation, the same uncertainty applies to human behavior. For example, Smith found that in 21 percent of the encounters, people who had guns did not fire a single round, even though they had the chance to fire and were in jeopardy. Why? Often because they were reluctant to use lethal force on the bear.

One reason for this reluctance, Smith believes, is the stigma attached to an unlicensed bear killing.

“When someone shoots a bear in self-defense and it gets reported in a newspaper, they’re considered by a lot of people to be an idiot, a moron; ‘he must have been doing something wrong,’ and so on. So people don’t want to be cast into that arena. Another cause of reluctance is that in Alaska, the bear’s hide, skull, and claws must be packed out to the authorities. That’s a hassle and a headache, a lot of work, so people don’t want to deal with all that.”

In the northern Rockies, shooting a grizzly can have legal and financial ramifications. In essence one has to prove that the shooting was done in justifiable self-defense. Failure to make a convincing case can lead to criminal trial, hunting license suspension, and heavy fines.

Part of the message for hunters here, Smith believes, is that if you are thinking of using a firearm for self-defense against bears, you’d better be both ready and able to use the weapon, without undue hesitation, and despite the surprise, alarm, and sometimes the flash-suddenness of a charging bear. Being ready and able in this way means actually practicing the necessary moves and skills before plunging into bear country. For instance: close-in snap-shooting, fast unslinging to a steady-aim position, handgun draw-and-firing. The same principle applies to hip-holstered bear spray. Practice releasing the trigger guard and readying to fire without needing to look down and without fumbling. (In split-second situations there’s no need to remove the can from the holster; the spray can be shot right off the hip since, unlike a bullet, it does not require precise target placement.)

Practice these Self-Defense Skills

Many hunters don’t make the time to practice these self-defense skills, and some of them have paid a high price.
“You have to remember that bears are strong, aggressive predators,” Smith warns. “That’s what they do for a living. Why is it so surprising that they attack a person now and then? So I tell people: If you’re willing to let some four-legged hairy thing make significant decisions for your life, then good luck!

“The one thread that connects all the thousand-plus people [involved in aggressive-bear incidents1 that Steve Herrero and I looked at for this study, is that almost all of them didn’t think they would really run into a ‘problem bear.’ So that’s a point that’s got to be made to people. Yeah, most bears run away. Great! The one that won’t run away, or the one that comes around the animal you’re dressing out, that’s the bear we’re talking about here. And if you’ve got the wrong bear coming at you, you’d better be ready and able to convince it that the game’s not on, you’re not going to play the game their way. You’d better have a deterrent at hand–your gun or bear spray–and you’d better he ready and able to use the best one for the situation, maybe in a split second.

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