How to Use Bear Spray: workshop at Linnaea

FOCI launched their new  ‘Create, Connect and Conserve’ series on February 3rd at Linnaea Farm, with workshops on coexisting peacefully with wildlife. Bob Hansen of WildSafeBC explained the effectiveness and correct use of bear spray.

In the course of the presentation, he shared several interesting statistics and exploded a few common misconceptions. Bob showed a WildsafeBC video, and also gave a live demonstration; attendees learned the mechanics of ‘laying down a wall’ of spray to keep wildlife at a distance, or directly targeting the animal’s face. In a brief lecture on bear behaviour, he explained why bears attack, how often this happens, ways to avoid attacks, and what to do if a bear does attack you.

Videos on bear safety by Wildsafe BC

Fortunately, bear attacks are uncommon — the average North American is more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a bear. In North America there are fewer than three fatalities due to bears each year (versus 20 due to lightning strikes).

In BC over the last 40 years, there has been one fatality every three years for black bears, and one every five years for grizzlies. Given the number of people out exploring and adventuring in the bush every year, bear attacks are quite rare; our culturally-reinforced fear of bears is somewhat exaggerated.

Adapted from Cortes Community Wolf Project image

Nevertheless, a close encounter with a bear can be dangerous — and it’s best to be prepared if you spend time in the bush. Bob explained the benefits and proper use of bear spray.

Some Interesting Facts About Bear Attacks

  • Bear bells really don’t work.
  • Using bear spray is more effective than carrying a gun.
  • Black bears are more predatory than grizzlies when they do attack humans.
  • Grizzly attacks tend to be due to surprise close encounters, and almost 80 percent of them involve female bears (usually with cubs).
  • 100 percent of recorded black bear attacks involve male bears, and 83 percent of those attacks were predatory.
  • Bears have never attacked groups of four or more people.
  • A loose dog may be a liability, a leashed dog is likely to be an asset. Dogs are involved in 53 percent of bear attacks, and sometimes the bear will chase a fleeing dog back towards its owner. However, having a dog on a leash often discourages bears from approaching.

Over a 40 year period in BC there have been 41 serious grizzly bear attacks with 8 fatalities, and 14 serious black bear attacks — also with 8 fatalities. So the black bear attacks were less common, yet resulted in the same number of fatalities. They were statistically more lethal. Why is this?

Bob mentions that there are a lot more black bears, and they tend to interact more with humans in close quarters, triggering aggressive behaviour. While grizzly attacks almost always involve a sow (female bear) protecting her cubs, black bear attacks involve males who seem to be more deliberate and predatory.

Self-Defence Options for Backcountry Travellers

Many people take a gun with them into the backcountry, feeling that this will keep them safe from unfriendly bears.

Bob has spent time in Nunavut, and has observed close encounters with polar bears as well as our more local grizzlies and black bears. He says bear spray works quite well on all three species, but guns are actually not as effective as people think they are.

In a sample of 83 hostile bear/human interactions, bear spray stopped 90 percent of attacks from black bears and 92 percent from grizzly bears. In 98 percent of all incidents, the human was uninjured; but 11 percent of them experienced some effects from the spray itself. Bear spray was 100 percent effective for polar bears, with 90 percent of humans uninjured.

By contrast in incidents where the human only had a firearm for self-defence, 50 percent of those people were injured during the incident. In Nunavut almost everyone has a firearm, according to Bob, but even experienced hunters can have trouble using it effectively when confronted by a polar bear.

… quite a few accounts where the firearm jammed, or the adrenaline is so severe that they can’t figure out how to get the safety off, or they miss, or they shoot and hit the gravel and it bounces up and wounds the bear.

Bob emphasised that it’s very important to practise with your bear spray so the actions needed to deploy it become reflexive.

So you’re in the situation, the bear is coming, so you stop, you assess — yup, the body language of this bear tells me I’m in peril here, and it’s imminent. So you prepare, so you take it out of your holster, and you next remove the safety, and you grab the base of it in one hand, And then the trigger in your other hand. And you want a two handed grip because the adrenaline is going to be really pumping. Then you want to aim for the face or build a wall.

It’s gonna come out, and it comes out and it spreads out like this. And it hangs in the air, so it creates this wall of molecules hanging in the air that the bear has to pass through. And, it takes very little. And then yield — back away. The bear should be running the other way, but be prepared in case it’s one of those small percentage situations where the bear comes back.

WildsafeBC’s video presenter Frank Ritcey emphasised proper storage, transport, preparation and practise. He noted that bear spray doesn’t last forever and will not be effective if expired; so it’s important to check the expiry date. It should last for about 2 years. It must be stored in a cool dry place, and safely transported in its own vented container, padded or otherwise shockproofed.

The Tool of Last Resort

Frank emphasises in his video that bear spray is “no substitute for good common sense when you’re out in the bush.”

The best bear encounter is the one you avoid… You need to be aware of your situation; you need to be watching for bear sign. And you have to be actively ensuring that you are not putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Bear spray is there for when things have gone wrong. When — even though you’ve tried to be careful — somehow you’re in close proximity to a bear; you’ve walked in on a bear on a kill, or there’s a bear that for some reason is bent on charging you. It’s the tool of last resort.

Bob gave a live demonstration of the correct use of bear spray, using a harmless demonstration spray unit.

To build that wall, as the bear is charging you, point the bear spray towards the ground out in front of you, and bring it up to meet the bear. That way you will have a solid wall of bear spray between you and the bear, and it’s going to run into that, and as soon as it does, it’s going to lose all fight.

“First point it at the ground…” (photo by Roy Hales)
“… then bring it up to meet the bear.” (photo by Roy Hales)

There’s an international polar bear management working group for around the circum-Arctic [region]. And one of the projects that we work collectively on is in each jurisdiction, collecting accounts of bear spray use in polar bears. I was able to interview and record the details from people involved in four different incidents in Nunavut. And in all of those incidents, it was exactly that same response.

The polar bear involved in every instance was described as running away — and even minutes later they could still see it running away, if they were on the open, barren ground. Like in one case that was like it showed up on a rise, they figured two kilometers away, and it was still running.

Links of Interest:

[Illustrations by Midjourney, prompts by author; photos by Roy Hales]