Bear Spray vs. Bullets: How To Stay Safe in Grizzly Country

Todd Orr looked like he’d been through hell, only worse. Staring into the camera of his phone Orr was streaked with blood, with large chunks of skin hanging from his head. He held the phone and spoke into it as his other arm hung useless, broken from the impact of what he described as a sledgehammer, but with teeth.

Orr was hiking in the mountains near Ennis, Montana, when he came upon the bear in a meadow. The female grizzly, with cubs, did nothing out of the ordinary, as far as grizzlies go, and charged. The fury of a bear protecting her cubs charged through the cloud of bear spray Orr let out and was on the man’s back, clawing and biting.

Convinced the intruder was sufficiently taken care of, the bear rounded up the cubs and disappeared back into the woods.

Limping back towards the safety of his truck, Orr’s ordeal wasn’t over. The bear returned and for the second time that day, Orr felt the fury of an enraged mother grizzly. Satisfied it finished the job this time, the grizzly left Orr, who limped back to his truck and filmed his predicament on his smartphone.


Bear Attacks Are Becoming More Commonplace

According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Orr’s double mauling is one of seven encounters with people and grizzlies in Montana this year and since Orr’s mauling, two more hunters were attacked. Attacks on a pheasant hunter on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal land, and a hiker near Whitefish, are both confirmed to involve grizzlies.

With a growing number of grizzlies in Montana, as well as the three states that make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the general rifle season fast approaching, anyone hunting in grizzly country needs to prepare for encounters.

The bear in Orr’s case seemed to have charged right through the cloud of bear spray he laid down, but according to a study published by Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero titled, Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska, done on Alaskan brown bears, spray is still the best means of deterring a charging bear and a sidearm may be only fit as a last resort.

The study references 72 different instances of bear spray used on aggressive bears over a span of nearly 20 years. The study found 92 percent of the close encounters with grizzlies were stopped by the use of bear spray. The cases all reference instances with bears either seeking food or displaying aggressive behavior.

Three of the cases happened so close that injuries were sustained by the bear, but the injuries were minor and didn’t require a hospital and the bear was still ran off through the use of the spray.

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What’s a Good Defense from a 600lb Grizzly?

Firearms may lead to a high risk of injury from the bear, or from your hunting partner. In 2011 a man was attacked by a grizzly while hunting in Montana. His hunting partner attempted to save him by shooting at the bear, but the bullet hit and killed the hunter. A similar encounter occurred in British Columbia in October of 2014 when a hunter survived an attack from a grizzly bear, and a bullet wound from his friend who tried to halt the attack.

Bear spray, may be a safer, more effective alternative to a firearm, but by no means is it perfect. In 11 cases featured by the efficacy study, the spray was misused as a deterrent when no bears were present. In each of those cases, the residue actually attracted grizzlies to the area.


Chuck Bartlebaugh is the founder and director of the Center for Wildlife Information, based in Missoula, Mont. and said it’s not uncommon for people to misuse spray. Bartlebaugh said misuse, or even distrust in the effectiveness of spray sometimes stems from misinformation.

Bartlebaugh said people often don’t fire the spray until it’s too late. He said some National Parks tell people to wait until the approaching bear is 30 feet away, but because of its speed and momentum, the bear will almost surely come into contact with a person at that range.

“It takes time for the bear to assess what’s happening and divert its charge,” he said. “If you spook a bear at close range, you’re going to get mauled.”

Bartlebaugh said to try and fire the spray at least 60 yards away, instead creating a wall of spray the bear has to run through. He also stressed practicing using your spray, just like you would a firearm. He said most, if not all, cases of spray not working properly are from user error. People often don’t have the spray at the ready, fumble with safety and most often fire the spray too high over the oncoming bear.

Bartlebaugh also recommends the Counter Assault brand specifically. He said other brands may not be approved by the EPA and carry a heavier oil content, which in colder weather, makes the spray heavier and sink low instead of making a protective barrier at the bear’s face level.

The rise in grizzly populations in the lower 48 have led to an inevitable rise in human-bear encounters. Some claim the rise in encounters is due to a lack of fear bears have for humans after decades of being protected.

The upcoming decision to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem may introduce a hunting season for grizzlies and some believe a hunting season will instill a fear of humans into grizzlies.

Bartlebaugh disagrees about a hunting season making bears wary of humans, though. He instead thinks it’s more likely the use of spray will be a lesson passed on through generations of bears.

Bears certainly are capable of learning the nuances of being hit with bear spray.

In some cases featured in the efficiency study, the can of spray didn’t even need to be fired to deter the bear. The report references 10 instances where the mere sight and sound of the safety coming off a can of spray was enough to make a bear think twice.

Regardless of what you carry at your side, though, there’s no substitution for common sense, awareness and a good hunting buddy when sneaking through the woods. The West’s population of grizzlies is growing and with that, hunters must grow to protect themselves as they share the woods with the bears just as their ancestors did before.

Updated August, 2018

Written by Cavan Williams