Is A Gun Protection Against A Bear?

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

One would think that the answer to this question is fairly straight forward after the change in federal law allowing firearms to be carried into National Parks saved its first backpackers.  But there was a proliferation of stupid articles about a gun being no protection against bears, articles such as this one.

A well placed bullet might stop an aggressive grizzly, but not shooting could be just as effective in protecting yourself in bear country, according to a new study by Brigham Young University wildlife biologists.

Longtime bear biologist Tom Smith and colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of close-quarter bear-human conflict in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 in which a firearm was involved. They found the gun made no statistical difference in the outcome of these encounters, which resulted in 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities

“It really isn’t about the kind of gun you carry. It’s about how you carry yourself,” said Smith, lead author of the study published online in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

“Guns are great, but for a gun to be great you have to be very, very good. No one ever practices on a 500-pound animal charging at you through the brush at 10 meters. They practice on paper targets,” he added. “That’s a big, big difference from being in the moment of stress.”

One commenter noted how bad studies like this are, observing that:

For any study to be valid, controls must be in place to make certain that conditions are identical for the options being tested.  That is patently false in this scenario and for a very simple reason:  Bear spray is carried with the full purpose of using it on a bear.  That may seem like a simple premise, but let me continue.   A firearm may be carried for any one of several reasons; small game hunting, bird shooting, etc.  In other words, the bear spray examples they give are all in preparation for those specific situations, the firearm examples may be anything from someone carrying a 12 gauge loaded with OOO buckshot, strictly on the concern for meeting up with B’rer Bruin, to a squirrel hunter armed only with a .22.  Likewise would be the case of shotgunner, out for birds and carrying only birdshot.

For this study to be valid, it would have to compare those using bear spray for protection with those carrying heavy enough firearms for the specific intent of protecting the carrier from bears.

Well, yes, but things that seem intuitive to us (e.g., that the presence of a man-killing animal requires protection) get buried by biased “researchers.”  Fortunately we have other writers who aren’t so stolid.

A predatory black bear attack on a camper in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness area illustrates why guns–not bear spray–are sometimes the best tool for self-defense.

A five-year old, 185 pound male black bear jumped on the camper’s tent at 7:30 in the morning. The bear then ripped through the tent and mauled the man in what Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials describe as a predatory attack.

The camper–who has chosen not to be identified or talk to the media–used bear spray to deter the bear, however, the bruin did not leave the area.

Since the man was out of bear spray, he was helpless. That would not be the case if he had a pistol, rifle, or shotgun because most of these firearms hold five or more rounds. The man could have killed the bear.

Incredibly, a U.S. Forest Service trail crew employee came upon the injured man just outside his camp. The Great Falls Tribune said the Forest Service employee “chased off the bear,” but no explanation was offered on how this was accomplished.

The Forest Service employee then radioed for help. A helicopter arrived, and the injured man was taken to the Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Later that afternoon, Montana FWP sent a team to dispatch the bear. The bear was killed just 70 yards from the campsite. It was in the process of moving closer to the tent.

The bruin had bear spray on its fur. It had blood on its claws. A necropsy showed that after the initial attack, the bear had been able to get into food at the campsite. Its stomach contents included bits of Ziplock bags, dried pasta, and other food.

If there’s such a thing as a typical predatory black bear, this bear “fits the mold.” A recent study shows that 92% of all predatory black bears in the past century have been males. This bear was healthy, and that too is typical.

In the 2nd edition of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, biologist Stephen Herrero writes that “If predation is the motive for an attack, the attack typically continues until the bear is forced to back down, or the person gets away, or the bear gets its prey.” (p.106)

Better to have a minimum of five or six shots from a firearm, than one 5-8 second burst of bear spray.

You can keep your bear mace.  I’ll carry my XDm .45 or some similar gun, thank you.

  • Gary Foster

    .45 might be fine for black bear but Grizzlies and Brown Bears are altogether different. I really think no handgun is enough for them as a practical matter. Most Alaskans carry shotguns or rifles when in bear country.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    But Gary, some gun is better than no gun. And the first backpackers who were saved after the change in the law were using .45 ACP. I will never go backpacking in bear country without a dog, firearm, a partner, and my partner’s dog and firearm.

    I didn’t even go backpacking in S.C. recently without my .45. In lieu of carrying a long gun, a handgun is better than nothing, and even better than mace.

  • jean

    I had a college professor (Vietnam Vet) who worked as a surveyor on the Alaska Pipeline. They carried Magnums and Shotguns. They had multiple bear encounters and were not constrained by any ROE.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Yes. If I had to choose between handguns, I would probably select .357 magnum wheel gun (and a tactical shotgun) for bear country. On the other hand, if you’re backpacking, you always have to be concerned about that awful weight you must carry each … and … every … step of the way.

  • jean

    Friend of mine got an elk permit for Canada. He gave the permit to his son, they had a great hunt. Their guide carried a short barreled heavy caliber rifle for bears. They had to practice a bear TTP. The guide advised them that they would have about a 2 second engagement window, they practiced everyday. Bears are no joke.

  • Gary Foster

    Read the latest books on bear attacks and it seems that pepper spray is more effective than a firearm in general terms. Me, I would carry both in big bear country. Spray is not very effective for black bears so a pistol would be great for them. A very powerful pistol would be called for in Brown bear, grizz country. .44 mag at least.
    The backpacker in alaska incident is suspicious so might not be a good example. I am glad they were able to have a gun!!!!
    Here in the midwest, it’s cougars that would make me most concerned.
    Yes, in bear country I would carry spray, a .44 mag and a shotgun.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Okay Gary. I’m convinced. Instead of just a gun, I’ll carry bear mace too! A .357 magnum or .44 magnum wheelgun, plus bear mace. I will not relinquish my gun(s). Ever.

    We do still have to be concerned about that awful weight on our backs when we pack into the woods. We simply can’t carry everything, so we must pick and choose.

  • Kathryn

    I never bought the bear spray, it looked too heavy anyway. Amazing it only had 7 seconds of spray in it. Handgun sounds like a better choice for backpacking.


You are currently reading "Is A Gun Protection Against A Bear?", entry #9094 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Firearms,Guns,Guns In National Parks and was published September 20th, 2012 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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