The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 134: Grizzlies in the Mist

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

What if the safest way to protect yourself from a grizzly bear, was also safer for the bear? This week on The WildeBeat; Grizzlies in the Mist.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one thirty four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Ask people to name the biggest, badest, scariest animal in American wilderness areas, and most I talk to won't even hesitate to think. They'll say, it's the grizzly bear.

CHRIS SERVHEEN: There's a lot of controversy about grizzly bears.

STEVE: Chris Servheen is the Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CHRIS SERVHEEN: A lot of people think they're extremely dangerous and that one should be prepared for injury or death when you're in grizzly bear country. Some people promote the idea that you can only, or should only hike in grizzly bear country with firearms.

STEVE: I've heard that before. Years ago I went on a mountaineering trip in the Canadian Rockies. On that trip, our guides all carried big guns to defend us from grizzly bears. They never had to use them though. Just recently, Chris Servheen wrote a fact sheet that was published by the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was titled, "Bear Spray versus Bullets, which offers best protection?"

CHRIS SERVHEEN: Well, almost all the information in the fact sheet is based on work of other people. I personally use bear spray, and of course carry it all the time when I'm in bear country. And in fact most professional bear biologists carry it.

STEVE: One of the scientists who did the actual research is Tom Smith. Tom is an associate professor of plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University.

TOM SMITH: Well I have done research for the last seventeen years with grizzly bears... the majority of my work has to do with some aspect of bear human conflict, and how to resolve that.

STEVE: So comparing the numbers of people that actually get back into grizzly bear country, versus the number of conflicts, are these conflicts really common? Or are they, you know, kind of weird, kind of rare?

TOM SMITH: Well, the fact of the matter is they're extremely rare. How rare, well, I think Alaska, where i've done all my work on this ranges anywhere from two to four or five significant conflicts a year. And you're right, if people want to play the odds and say, "well these are very rare, over a hundred and some years, you've only got six hundred, the chances are low," that's fine. But I can certainly provide you a list of over a thousand people who really wish their names weren't in my database... But the point is that these are avoidable, and therefore I think it's something that we could and should do something about.

STEVE: So you have statistics on the rate of success for people who are using the pepper spray, and you have statistics on the rate of success for people using firearms to defend against bears. Can you give me a quick summary comparing the success rates of those two tactics?

TOM SMITH: So on the average, as far as the efficiency of bear spray, I found that in ninety two percent of the instances that I studied, that bear spray was effective in stopping aggressive grizzly bears. OK, and with firearms, we found that it was a lower percentage, somewhere in the sixty seven percent range for deterring these aggressive bears. And so, you know, I think the take-home message is, unless you're extremely competent with a firearm, bear spray looks to have a better track record for diffusing close range encounters.

STEVE: What kind of marksman does this person have to be if they're encountering a bear and they've got split seconds to stop that bear? I mean, what parts of the of the bear do they have to hit? How accurate do they have to be?

TOM SMITH: Well, you know, ...the one advice that we give people to council is that you shoot for center of mass. OK, so, you know, if you were to tell people anything else, they're going to be thinking about it... It's just point and shoot. However, to make my point about one of the reasons why firearms are difficult, I dredged up some incidents from Kodiak Island where guys that had lead guided bear hunts for half a century there, they kept good records on the hunter kills. It turns out that in the kills that I looked at, it took an average of four point five bullets per bear to put down a brown bear. Now this is in a situation where, the person number one, has adequate caliber gun. They're carrying three hundreds, three oh eights, three seventy fives, veritable cannons. They're positioned ofttimes in a good place, you know, a good, you know, kind of a spot from which to survey a bear trail, so they're not moving. They're situated. They have a gun rest. They've got the element of surprise, and they also hopefully have very good aim because they know where to expect the bear. That's under all those conditions. It takes about, over four shots per bear to put it down. Now, if you think rounding a trail in a sudden encounter you can do better than that, then good luck.

STEVE: How frequently do these firearm encounters actually exacerbate the situation?

TOM SMITH: Well, there have been a few, for sure, where people have put in a few bullets and it seems to just enrage the animal... If you're going to carry a gun for bear protection you need to have shock power, stopping power, and when you shoot center-of-mass, it better do something to the bear. And of course in our agency, when I worked for the federal government, we carried a Remmington eight seventy twelve gage shotguns with rifled three-inch slugs. And I think... what's an even odder, ...finding, is that if you compare handguns to long guns, hand guns have outperformed long guns... What's interesting about this is when I first saw that result I thought, surely there's a mistake... Well the handguns have outperformed because the people that are shooting bears with pistols are on their backs shoving it in their mouth, or shooting it up through their belly, they've already been knocked over, and they were able to get the gun, and see with long guns that's not possible... It doesn't make me want to go buy a handgun. [laughs] Not particularly.

STEVE: So let's talk about the other alternative, then. Let's talk about the pepper spray.

TOM SMITH: The difference is is that, with a can of bear spray that weighs eight ounces for most of the cans... It's just simple to use, it's not nearly as dependent on aim, and, you know, it comes flying out of that can. The downside is,'ve got to be twenty feet or less to really deter a bear with a big cloud of that... So like it or not, these are close range, almost always, and this happens to just, I think, outperform at close range. Now, that said, I do know some folks with firearms that are, ...they'd be very, very good in these situations. The problem is the rank and file out there are not very good at it. Now for those who think I'm an anti-firearms person, well, I carry an eight seventy. So it's not like I have any love lost for bears that are agressive or threatening me, but on the other hand there's just places it doesn't work, and so, you know, it's good to have them both, for... when I'm doing research or in bear country.

STEVE: It certainly seems to be a more user-friendly option for the less experienced wilderness traveler.

TOM SMITH: Yes, it certainly is a better option for the inexperienced wilderness traveler, and I think that it's... very easy, light to carry, easily deployed, and of course, it'll last many years.

STEVE: Chris Servheen of the Fish and Wildlife Service offered these tips to avoid dangerous grizzly bear encounters.

CHRIS SERVHEEN: The main things are that we try to teach people are ways to minimize conflict with bears in the first place. Make noise, let the bears know you're around. Bears that are aware of people tend to shy away from people. If you're in bear habitat, be aware that you're in bear habitat, be alert to your surroundings if you see bear sign, be careful. Don't try to hike into the wind or hike in thick brush, or especially don't hike in the evening or at night. If you do encounter a bear at close range, we recommend bear spray as an effective way to to minimize the conflicts between bears and people. Bears are immobilized with the spray, and they don't tend to be interested in you after they've been sprayed with this... The bottom line is that we try to tell people how to coexist with grizzly bears. There are ways that you can live, work, and recreate in grizzly bear habitat and have a very low probability of encounters with bears. There's no need to be abnormally afraid.

STEVE: If a person winds up unnecessarily shooting a bear, there's a federal fine for that, right?

CHRIS SERVHEEN: That is correct. There is a federal fine for unnecessarily shooting a bear. Grizzly bears can be killed in self defense or in defense of others... And every shooting of a grizzly bear is investigated by the law enforcement people both from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's special agents, and the state fish and game departments... And if it wasn't a self defense you just saw a bear a couple hundred yards away and you were afraid and you said you were going to shoot it, we've actually had people be foolish enough to do that, then you'll be taken to court.

STEVE: And what are those penalties?

CHRIS SERVHEEN: Well it can be up to fifty thousand dollars under the endangered species act. And up to two years in jail.

STEVE: Have you ever had to face a grizzly bear? We'd like to hear about your experiences with bears, and we always want to hear other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to tips on being safe in grizzly bear habitat, and an extended version of this show, on our web site. WildeBeat members can download my entire forty minute interview with Tom Smith from out WildeBeat Insider web pages.

STEVE: This edition was produced with funds provided by our members; all listeners like you. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get a weekend's worth of backcountry meals from Alpine Aire Foods as a thank you gift.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one thirty four. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- a family hike.

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