Montana Public Radio

Are You Sure You Know How To Use Bear Spray?

Aug 27, 2019

A Montana bear safety organization has just released a new guide explaining how to properly deploy and use bear spray. The group says the new guide is the result of their "deep concern" that the general public is getting a lot of misinformation about bear spray. Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Missoula-based 'Be Bear Aware Campaign' volunteers have for two decades informally interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people who carry bear spray. Director Chuck Bartelbaugh and his colleagues, including educators and bear biologists, have regularly quizzed people at trailheads, campgrounds and outdoor tradeshows about their bear spray knowledge.

“We have almost a consistent 20-plus year pattern of people not being able to hold the can firmly and not being able to direct a spray downward, and so actually spraying over the top of the bear," Bartelbaugh says.

Bartelbaugh says some people fumble with a can of bear spray while simply trying to remove its safety clip.

“Most people think their thumb goes on top of the safety clip. It feels that way and looks that way, but no it doesn't. It goes in front of the curled-up lip, and you pull back,” he says.

In one well-publicized case from several years ago, a father and daughter jumped off a cliff in Glacier National Park to escape a bear attack after the daughter could not release the bear spray container’s safety clip.

Screen capture from Be Bear Aware's guide to deploying bear spray.
Credit Be Bear Aware

Bartelbaugh says some people purchase pepper, or military-type defensive sprays designed to hold a human attacker at bay, believing it will have the same effect on a charging bear. He advises against betting your life on it.

“Something that sprays for only four seconds sprays too short for a bear. That’s pepper spray-type spray duration for a mugger in a parking lot, not a charging or harassing bear, which may be more than one,” Bartelbaugh says.

To counter what Bartelbaugh says is widespread bear spray related misinformation, the Be Bear Aware Campaign has released a new 8-page guide called “How to Deploy Your Bear Spray Against a Highly Agitated Charging Bear.” It uses four different scenarios to detail how bear spray should be used to defend against a charging bear.

In the first scenario, a bear charges from approximately 60 feet out.

"Disperse your spray to a point 30 feet out in front of you, and the bear will meet the bear spray cloud at 30 feet, enter it and feel the effects," Bartlebaugh says.

The campaign says be sure to spray in a downward direction so the chemical doesn’t overshoot the animal. Also, don’t try to aim for the bear’s face. Bartelbaugh says that only wastes precious time.

Most bear charges take place within 30 feet. In those cases Bartelbaugh says, "You direct the bear spray at the front of the bear and keep spraying at the front of the bear as it’s charging until it diverts its charge. No short bursts."

A new 8-page guide called “How to Deploy Your Bear Spray Against a Highly Agitated Charging Bear” uses four different scenarios to detail how bear spray should be used to defend against a charging bear.
Credit Be Bear Aware

The campaign’s third and fourth bear spray situations are worst case scenarios; an agitated bear suddenly attacks from less than 15 feet out. Under those dire circumstances, the bear spray should obviously be deployed as soon as possible. Hose down the entire area you and the bear are in. It won’t feel good, but just may save your life. If the bear is attacking a hiking partner, spray both until the attack stops.

"And then that bear will let go of your friend and it may charge you," Bartelbaugh says. "That has happened in almost every case we’ve interviewed someone spraying. So you need to spray directly into that path, and in every case the bear did divert its charge and run off.”

Bartelbaugh says that in trained and skilled hands a high-powered firearm is an effective form of self-defense against bear attacks.

"Guns do work and they work in a lot of cases, but there’s added danger involved when you use a firearm, especially around crowds."

Meaning a high-powered weapon in the hands of an inexperienced, highly stressed person runs the risk of shooting someone else in the line of fire who’s behind that attacking predator.

Bartelbaugh says while many bear spray manufacturers have offered contributions to the Be Bear Aware Campaign, the organization has no vested interest in any of them.

But he singles out one company, Counter Assault, developed over three decades ago at the University of Montana, for producing a bear spray canister that discharges for a full eight seconds at approximately 40 feet. He says too many other companies are now pursuing palm-sized cans of bear spray.

“Palm-sized cans are totally inadequate for charging bears," Bartelbaugh says. "There may be as many as four bears at a time – and have been. It just doesn’t spray far enough, long enough and have enough ingredients to stop a full-blown, highly agitated charging grizzly bear.”

Bartlebaugh says it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort from land management agencies, hunting and angling groups and others to educate the public about the proper use of bear spray.

But according to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) spokesperson Dillon Tabish, that’s already happening.

"We do not share the level of concern raised in that news release," Tabish says.

"We constantly are putting on education and outreach events with inert bear spray cannisters where we let folks learn how to spray it, learn how to take the safety off. We put on numerous events throughout the year where folks get a hands-on experience using bear spray. We also have program curriculum inside all of our hunter education classes so students are learning about bear spray and some safety tips about it and how to use it."

Tabish says bear spray is an effective deterrent and encourages everyone who carries it to read the instructions on how to properly use it.

No disagreement from Chuck Bartlebaugh.

"There is no one way a bear charges," he says. "There is no one way you deploy your bear spray. You need to be able to have a sense of how to use it in the situation you are in on that day."

Learn more with the Be Bear Aware Campaign’s brand new 8-page bear spray guide.