Living With the Wild

How a Potent Pepper Spray Became the Best Bear Repellent

Two decades ago, many thought a simple can of chemicals could never thwart a charging grizzly. Here's why they were wrong.

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A person's chances of being injured by a bear in Yellowstone National Park (pictured) are about 1 in 2.2 million.

Across the northern Rocky Mountains, western Canada, and Alaska, big game hunting season has begun. From now until the end of autumn, no other season is more hazardous for people and grizzly bears to be in the woods together.

Thousands of sportsmen and sportswomen are moving quietly and stealthily through the thickets of the backcountry; meanwhile, grizzlies are preparing to hibernate by gorging themselves on food.

In past decades, many people traveling in bear country during this time of year have shot bears, claiming self-defense. This was not only dangerous for people, it represented a major obstacle in restoring populations of the rare predator to the Lower 48. (Related: "How to Not Get Attacked by a Bear.")

Then, in the late 1980s, a “revolutionary tool for better co-existence” arrived, explains Chuck Bartlebaugh, founder and director of the Center for Wildlife Information in Missoula, Montana.

Living With the Wild. As bear populations rebound across the United States, and as people increasingly move into their habitat, bear-human run-ins are inevitable. This is one of several stories asking: How do we live with the predators?

Bear spray, especially at close range where most attacks occur, is more reliable than a speeding bullet and extremely effective in thwarting a grizzly charging at 35 miles (56 kilometers) an hour, research shows.

“As a deterrent for repelling aggressive grizzlies and other bear species, bear spray has been the single most important innovation to emerge for both hunters and hikers passing through grizzly country in the last 50 years, if not ever,” says Bartlebaugh, who has studied the red pepper-based spray and its deployment perhaps more than anyone in North America.

WATCH: A bear can go from disinterested to dangerous in an instant. Do you know what to do if you're attacked by a startled grizzly?

A portable product typically carried in a holster on a person's hip or chest, bear spray has "saved the lives of countless people and bears,” he says. (See National Geographic's best bear pictures.)

History of Bear Spray

Bear spray was born in response to helplessness and frustration over the regular, violent, and often fatal encounters between humans and bears.

Carrie Hunt, who directs the conservation nonprofit Wind River Bear Institute, studied various prototypes of bear spray as part of her master's thesis at the University of Montana in the 1980s.

Working closely with advisor Chuck Jonkel, Hunt and colleagues tested a number of different ingredients on captive grizzlies.

The team found that what's now called bear spray, which emits a powerful cloud of chemicals related to those found in ultra-spicy red pepper, temporarily and harmlessly disables a bear’s ability to smell, breathe, see, hear, and think clearly.

In the late 1980s, Jonkel and Hunt presented their findings to Chris Servheen, the longtime national grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was intrigued by the results, as was a Vietnam veteran named Bill Pounds, who developed and released the first major commercial bear spray product, called Counter Assault, soon after. (See "Why You're More Likely To Be Killed By a Bee Than a Bear.")

Saving Lives

To find out if bear spray is as effective as guns, Servheen and colleagues with the U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team conducted a ten-year analysis in the 1990s, which found that people who defended themselves against bears with firearms suffered injury 50 percent of the time, while those outfitted with bear spray evaded injury most of the time.

“Although no product is guaranteed to work or always 100 percent effective, I’m not aware of any case, among many I’ve reviewed, of a person dying when deploying bear spray the way it is supposed to be used," Bartlebaugh notes.

A 2008 study backs up this claim. Between 1985 and 2006, scientists found that bear spray was 92 percent effective in deterring attacks from the three species of North American bear in Alaska. In the study, 98 percent of people carrying bear spray who got into close encounters with bears were uninjured.

Study co-author Tom Smith, a biologist at Brigham Young University in Utah, notes that firearms are still effective—but that they often lead to unnecessary bear deaths. (See "What Happens to Problem Bears That Go to Rehab?")

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Former Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist John Hechtel prepares to fire can of inert bear spray during a training session on bear deterrents on July 24, 2014, in Wrangell, Alaska.

“If you’re a hunter, why not carry bear spray?” says Smith, who co-authored the study with Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Canada. “If you want to be the most conscientious you can be, carry both. If I had to choose one or the other, I’d go with bear spray.”

Convincing the Skeptics

Bear spray has had its doubters over the years, though they're steadily shrinking in number.

Bartlebaugh admits that when he first heard in the early 1980s that bear biologists were developing a non-lethal weapon to halt bears with stuff sprayed out of a can, “I shook my head and chuckled. 'Yeah, this ought to be pretty entertaining to watch.'” (Related: "What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?")

But he's experienced the benefit of bear spray firsthand: He dispensed a can to stop a grizzly bearing down on him in Alaska.

Mark Matheny was another initial skeptic, but his own brush with near death made him a believer. In September 1992, the then 39-year-old Montana man and a friend were bow-hunting deer in the Gallatin National Forest when they stumbled upon a mother grizzly with cubs.

The sow took Matheny down, chomping on his head. Matheny thought it was the end—until his companion emptied a four-ounce can of bear spray into the face of the bruin, causing it to flee. (Related: "'It Wasn't the Bear's Fault.' Grizzly Attack Survivor Stories.")

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A grizzly bear crosses a road amid curious tourists in Yellowstone National Park.

That traumatic encounter—and the realization that four ounces of pepper spray was insufficient—inspired Matheny to found his own bear spray company, UDAP, one of four major manufacturers. Matheny has even invented a backpack that ejects bear spray simply by pulling a cord in the event a bruin is coming from behind. (See "Video of Yellowstone Bear Chasing Tourists Isn't What You Think.")

Know Your Bear Spray

As bear spray today has been widely adopted as a necessity for hunters and others venturing into bear habitat, the biggest challenge is getting people to know how to use it—and that means having it handy and ready to deploy instantly.

“I can’t tell you how many times a victim has had bear spray with them, but didn’t have enough time to get it out of the holster before a grizzly was on them,” Bartlebaugh says.

He and government officials recommend that consumers choose a brand with a minimum net content of 7.9 ounces (225 grams) that can discharge a wide cloud of atomized spray up to 30 feet (9 meters) for seven seconds.

The three biggest mistakes people make are having bear spray in a place where it can’t be readily retrieved, waiting until the bear is inches away to pull the trigger, or firing too high.

“To be most effective, users need to create a wall of the product rising off the ground into the air that the bear must come through,” Bartlebaugh says. “And it means angling the blast lower rather than aiming high.”

“If a bear is charging at 35 to 45 miles [56 to 72 kilometers] an hour and coming at you from 60 yards [180 feet], it’ll be on you in two to three seconds,” he notes. “Most people haven’t gone through in their minds what they need to do and how fast they have to react.”

To help educate people, Bartlebaugh has taught hundreds of classes on using bear spray. He and Matheny independently have built training facilities in which they simulate bear attacks; Matheny’s lab features a bear mannequin that can move at high speeds.

Part of Bartlebaugh’s stumping involves pointing out the significant difference between bear spray and other pepper spray defense products, such as those carried by people to prevent assault.

“It needs to say bear spray on the can. Generic pepper spray does not work on bears,” Bartlebaugh says.  “People who thought it does have, in the past, been seriously injured because it didn’t stop bears.”

After decades of use, bear spray is touted by experts as the best choice for staying safe in bear country.

“Some people complain about paying $40 for a can of bear spray," Smith adds.

"Are you kidding me? Your life and the life of a bear aren’t worth 40 bucks?”

Todd Wilkinson is an environmental journalist. His most recent book is Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone, with photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen. Follow him on Twitter.

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