A study on Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent (Herrero and Higgins, 1998) found that 4.5% of people (3 of 66) who used bear spray were injured. In 14 cases, brown bears charged people. In 2 cases, black bears charged people. Most incidents involved bears “searching for food or garbage or being curious.” The study did not say if the people who used bear spray were hunting, fishing, camping, et cetera. The study did not include a single incident when people surprised a nearby bear and did not have time to use bear spray. The authors did not say if any bear spray incidents involved state or federal employees hazing bears.
A Proposed Lexicon of Terms and Concepts for Human-Bear Management in North America (Hopkins et al. 2010) defines hazing as “a technique where deterrents are administered to a bear to immediately modify the bear’s undesirable behavior.” A bear deterrent is defined as an “aversive agent administered to bears to cause pain, avoidance, or irritation.” When state and federal employees haze brown bears, it is customary for a person armed with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with lethal ammunition to provide backup for the person doing the hazing.
The Herrero and Higgins bear spray study showed that in (8 of 13) 62% of incidents when a black bear “received a substantial dose of spray to the face, the bear either did not leave the area, or it left and returned.” There were two cases when black bears charged, one case when a black bear exhibited predatory behavior, and one case when a black bear “vocalized aggressively and then approached.” None of these bears left after being sprayed. One bear was shot and killed. One bear left after a shotgun was fired. One person sprayed a bear, and then left, but the bear followed. The person fired a bear banger at the bear and made it back to camp. One person sprayed a black bear, and then left; the bear did not follow.
A study about Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries From Bears in Alaska (Miller and Tutterrow, 1999) reviewed Alaska Department of Fish and Game records on 2,289 bears killed in defense of life or property (DLP) from 1970-96. “Most of the persons shooting brown bears or black bears in DLP circumstances indicated that no human injury occurred (98.5% for brown bears and 99.2% for black bears). The study did not include data on the use of firearms loaded with non-lethal rounds for hazing bears.
Not all Alaska Department of Fish and Game DLP records were complete, but from 1986-96, Miller and Tutterrow included data on the activity of the people who shot bears in DLP. For example, 32.1% of brown bears were killed by hunters, 8.2% were killed as a result of “official public safety or wildlife agency response or conducting depredation or other control operation,” and so forth. Of the brown bears killed from 1986-96, 40.8% (218 of 534) were “an immediate threat (charging).”
A study titled Spatial Analysis of Locations of Brown Bears Killed in Defense of Life or Property on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, USA (Suring and Del Frate, 2002) found that from 1961-99, just 1.4% of people (1 of 71) who killed a brown in defense of life or property were injured. The study did not include data on the use of firearms loaded with non-lethal rounds for hazing bears. Again, hunting was the primary activity (44%) of people who killed brown bears in DLP. Of the brown bears killed, 55% were considered an “immediate threat,” 27% were “thought to be dangerous,” and 18% were killed to “protect property.”
A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “fact sheet” on Bear Spray vs. Bullets (2003) claims that based on investigations by field agents since 1992, “persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time.”
The fact sheet does not say if there were 2 incidents, or 200 incidents. The fact sheet does not say if the people who used bear spray and/or firearms were hunters, hikers, biologists, campers, et cetera. The fact sheet does not provide any data or references. The bottom line is, the fact sheet makes nothing but unsubstantiated claims.
A Journal of Wildlife Management study on Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska (Smith et al. 2008) found that (3 of 72) 4.1% of people who “sprayed bears to defend themselves” were injured. Nine people sprayed charging grizzlies, and one person sprayed a charging black bear. Most incidents involved “curious” bears “exploring the environment in a nonaggressive way.” It was not possible to determine if the three human injuries resulted from incidents involving charging bears or nonaggressive bears.
The authors said, “In 97% (69 of 72) bear spray incidents the persons activity at the time was reported. The largest category involved hikers (35%) followed by persons engaged in bear management activities 30%,” and one “hunter stalking a wounded bear.”
In two polar bear incidents, “subadult bears approached humans in a pickup truck there to observe bears feeding on bowhead whale remains near the village of Kaktovik.” In the Acknowledgments, the authors thanked C. Perham of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for “supplying polar bear incident data.” I called Mr. Perham to find out what happened. The humans in the pickup truck were U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists. The polar bear incidents should have been classified as agency personnel “hazing” bears.
How many of the 21 “persons engaged in bear management activities” were actually hazing bears? This is critically important because the authors of the bear spray study have repeatedly compared the overall success rate for bear spray to the overall success rate for firearms. That’s a pointless and misleading comparison. The firearms study did not include any hazing incidents; the bear spray study did. One-hundred percent of the firearms incidents involved “aggressive” bears. Just one-third of the incidents in the bear spray study involved “aggressive bears,” while two-thirds of the bears were curious and/or nonaggressive. It’s also pointless and misleading to compare firearms incidents involving charging bears to bear spray incidents involving biologists in a pickup truck using bear spray to haze away subadult polar bears.
The Journal of Wildlife Management study on Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska appears to be a scientific hoax.
A Journal of Wildlife Management study on Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska (Smith et al. 2012) analyzed 269 incidents from 1883-2009. The authors claimed, “A study of bear-human conflicts involving firearms has not been conducted.”
That data for this study came from newspapers, magazines, books, anecdotal information, and “readily accessible state and federal records.” What about DLPs? The authors said, “privacy laws restricted our access to records from 2001 to present.” In other words, they had access to the same 2,289 DLPs as Miller and Tutterrow, plus all DLP records for 1997-2000. So the question is, what basis did the authors of Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska have for omitting more than 2,000 DLPs?
DLPs certainly fit the definition of a firearms success: “We deemed the use of a firearm successful when it stopped the offensive behavior of the bear. These success included incidents when bears no long pursued a person, broke off an attack, abandoned attempts to acquire food or garbage, were killed, or turned and left the area as a result of firearm use.”
After omitting more than successful 2,000 DLPs, the authors stated that, “bear-inflicted injuries occurred in 151 of 269 (56%) incidents.”
Whereas all people in the bear spray study had time to use their bear spray, 40 of 269 (15%) of people did not have time to use their firearm in the firearm study.
The authors concluded that all people, even hunters carrying firearms, should carry bear spray because “its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater than those we observed for firearms.”
Journal of Wildlife Management Guidelines for authors state, “The title identifies manuscript content,” but there’s no data on the use of firearms loaded with non-lethal bear deterrent rounds in Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.
It seems reasonable to conclude that Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska is a biased, scientific hoax.
For what it’s worth, the overall statistics from the 1990's to the present show firearms are more effective than bear spray.
Hikers and others who are not comfortable with firearms or simply abhor guns should continue to use bear spray for self-defense or hazing bears away from camps and cabins. Bear spray is certainly better than nothing. Big game hunters who surprise grizzlies should use their gun for self-defense, not attempt some juggling act in a demented effort to use bear spray. Wildlife professionals should choose the best tool for the job, whether it’s bear spray, a firearm loaded with non-lethal rounds, or a firearm loaded with lethal ammunition meant to kill.