For bear deterrence, is pepper spray or a firearm your best bet? Jeremy Bruskotter, an associate professor at Ohio State University, attempted to answer this question in the June 18, 2014 Wildlife News, but it was readily apparent the issue was beyond Bruskotter's ken. He was not familiar with the two studies on bear spray, and he was blissfully unaware there are two studies on firearms vs. bears, not just the one study he relied upon exclusively.
Bruskotter's essay used one source, and one source only: BYU professor Tom Smith's 2012 study on Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska. Smith found that in 151 of 269 (56%) incidents involving firearms, people suffered injuries. Smith's study concluded, "We encourage all persons, with or without 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”
A thorough review the research on firearms and bear spray reveals that it's not possible to make a legitimate comparison of bear spray to firearms, and that Smith's research on bear spray and firearms is flawed and biased.
Stephen Herrero's 1999 study on Field Use of Capsicum Spray As A Bear Deterrent examined 66 incidents, and Herrero was a co-author of Tom Smith's 2008 study on Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska, which examined 72 incidents. Smith's 2008 study included 31 incidents from Herrero's 1999 study. We're looking at a total of 107 bear spray incidents. That's too small a sample size to draw firm conclusions.
The majority of bear spray incidents involved curious and/or non-aggressive bears. For example, Smith's 2008 study included an incident when two people in a pickup truck watching polar bears feeding on a whale carcass sprayed the bear when it approached their truck. Smith failed to mention that the people in the truck were U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists. The proper way to describe this incident would be to say that two wildlife professionals used bear spray to "haze" a polar bear. Thirty percent of the people in Smith's 2008 study were engaged in bear management activities, so you have to wonder how many of those people were wildlife professionals hazing bears.
Neither bear spray study included data on incidents when people did not have time to use their bear spray and were subsequently injured. This omission increases the success rate for bear spray.
The two bear spray studies included 106 incidents involving non-hunters, and just one (1) incident involving a hunter "stalking a wounded bear." The purpose of stalking a wounded bear is to kill it, and you can't kill a bear with bear spray. The authors offer no details on this mysterious incident.
Smith was the primary author of Efficacy of Firearms For Bear Deterrence in Alaska (2012), and Herrero was a co-author. This study reviewed 269 incidents from 1883-2009, and 27% of the people relying on firearms did not have time to get off a shot. Each and every incident in this study involved an "aggressive" bear. Only 25 of 72 bears in the Alaska bear spray study were behaving aggressively, and only 20 of 66 bears in Herrero's bear spray study acted aggressively.
It's impossible to make an apples to apples comparison when it comes to bear spray vs firearms. There's no way to compare bear spray vs charging grizzlies to firearms vs charging grizzlies, bear spray in defense of property against non-aggressive bears vs firearms in defense of property against non-aggressive bears, etc. Furthermore, the bear spray studies included an unknown number of incidents when wildlife professionals used bear spray to haze bears, but neither firearms study included data on wildlife professionals using firearms loaded with non-lethal rounds to haze bears.
A far more significant problem is that the results of Tom Smith's study on firearms are inconsistent with the results of a 1999 study by Miller and Tutterrow on Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries from Bears in Alaska. Miller & Tutterrow examined more than 2,000 incidents from 1970 to 1996 when people killed bears in defense of life of property, and less than 2% of the people involved reported injuries. Instead of offering a meaningful explanation for major differences between the two studies on firearms vs bears, Smith and Herrero claimed there were no previous studies on firearms vs. bears.
How can we explain the fact that Miller and Tutterrow's 1999 study on firearms vs bears had an human-injury rate of less than two percent, while Smith and Herrero's 2008 study had a human injury rate of 56%?
How do we explain that a study from 1970 to 1996 included over 2,000 incidents, while a study from 1883-2006 included just 269 incidents?
It appears that Smith & Herrrero cherry-picked their data. They included every known firearms failure, and excluded thousands of firearms successes.
Having said all that, both bear spray and firearms have their place. They're both useful tools. Instead of making a bogus comparison of bear spray to firearms to discourage firearms use, state and federal officials should offer advice on how to use both bear spray AND firearms effectively to promote human safety.
There have been many, many incidents when people carrying bear spray in a hip-holster were charged by a grizzly and did not have time to use their spray. Hikers should be taught to carry their bear spray in hand.
Hunters using rifles and shotguns should be taught to use their firearm quickly and effectively. They should be informed, in plain language, that bear spray is not an option. Hunters using a long gun can't use bear spray because they've already got a firearm in their hand or hands. It's not safe to drop a loaded firearm on the ground and reach for bear spray.
Bear spray advocates claim hunters carrying bear spray in a hip holster can deploy the spray with one hand. But some field carries for long guns require a right handed hunter to carry the long gun in their right hand, meaning they'd have to reach across their body and try to deploy bear spray with their left hand. Bear spray use is problematic with most of the common field carries for rifles and shotguns. It would be silly and dangerous for a hunter with a rifle to go through contortions to try to use bear spray one-handed rather than simply pointing his rifle at the bear and pulling the trigger. Bottom line: bear spray is not safe, practical or realistic for hunters carrying a long gun.
Archery hunters in grizzly country have a choice between using bear spray or a handgun for backup.
Hikers have a choice between bear spray and a firearm and weight is a key consideration: who wants to carry and 8 pound pump action 12-gauge shotgun instead of an 8 ounce can of bear spray?
Bear spray is the answer for people who don't like firearms, don't own a firearm capable of stopping a bear, or simply can't stomach the idea of killing a bear in defense of life or property.
Bear spray has a cult following, so research, facts, and firearms safety issues won't deter the bear spray cult from preaching that "statistics" prove bear spray is more effective than a firearm; ergo, even hunters should use bear spray. Dr. Bruskotter concludes, "bear spray is the clear winner by any criteria."