By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Some 30 years ago, biologist-turned-college -professor Charles Jonkel, Vietnam veteran Bill Pounds, and a young researcher named Carrie Hunt never thought of themselves as being “technology disruptors.”
All they knew was that the primary status quo method used by humans to resolve grizzly encounters was resulting in a lot of dead bears, dying at rates fast pushing them to the brink of total elimination from the Lower 48.
Apart from instructing people how to react to charging bears by coiling submissively into the fetal position, hiking in larger groups, keeping clean camps, and making noise on the trail, federal and state officials involved with grizzly recovery watched the bruin death toll continue to mount
The only hope grizzlies had of persisting, Jonkel said, was finding an alternative to bullets as a mainstay for human self-defense.
A lot has been written about Jonkel since his passing last spring, notably the Canadian-American’s ferocity for championing grizzly and polar bear conservation and his founding of both the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula and the Great Bear Foundation, but his involvement in pioneering the development of bear spray ranks as perhaps his most enduring contribution to the cause of human-grizzly coexistence.
“Bear spray has revolutionized the way we travel in bear country, the way we think about grizzlies, and the way we’ve been able to debunk negative mythology surrounding them,” says Chuck Bartlebaugh, a bear spray crusader whose files brim with testimonials of how the bullet-disrupting technology has saved the lives of many people and bears.
“The only problem is that although bear spray is highly effective in thwarting bear attacks, it still isn’t being carried by enough people,” Bartlebaugh says. “And among those who do carry it, many aren’t knowledgeable about how to deploy it from a can.”
As Bartlebaugh and the renowned bear behavior researchers Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero told me, bear spray has demonstrated remarkable effectiveness in safely repelling bears with compelling evidence it’s far more reliable than guns in saving lives, especially at close range, which is where most maulings occur.
The profile of bear spray is about to get a major boost. Yellowstone National Park this summer, in an attempt to encourage wider use among hikers, is launching an advertising campaign called “A Bear Doesn’t Care.” It features well-known individuals who say a bruin that crosses their path doesn’t care what a person does for a living. What matters is being smart and prepared in griz country.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says it’s surprising, for as much as bear spray has been embraced by people in the Northern Rockies as a necessity, its adoption rate—28 percent— by park visitors overall is still considered unacceptably low.
I had many chats with Jonkel and Pounds over the years. And I admire Hunt’s work through the Wind River Institute in promoting the use of Karelian bear dogs to help agrarians protect their livestock.
Jonkel once took me to a captive facility near Missoula, Montana where wild grizzlies and black bears had been taken after getting in trouble with people or livestock and then subjected to experiments gauging their response to non-lethal repellents.
Eventually, a concoction and delivery methods were developed allowing users to quickly spray an aerosol fog of oleo-resin capsaicin (a substance also present in super-hot red peppers). Capable of reaching bears 30 feet away when shot from a can, and hanging in the air long enough for charging grizzlies to absorb it in their eyes, mouth and lungs, bear spray caused serious but temporary distress to bruins’ olfactory systems. They hated it and would retreat.
Bears, especially sows with cubs, no longer had to die for acting defensively on behalf of offspring, advancing with no intention of killing people.
Members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team whose biologists have spent years in the field swear by bear spray’s effectiveness. The research unit conducted a ten-year analysis in the 1990s which found that people who defended themselves against bears with firearms suffered injury 50 percent of the time, while those outfitted with bear spray evaded harm most of the time.
“Although no product is guaranteed to work or always 100 percent effective, I’m not aware of any case, among many I’ve reviewed, of a person dying when deploying bear spray the way it is supposed to be used,” Bartlebaugh noted.
Jonkel, Pounds (who created the product Counter Assault) and Hunt are unsung heroes, he says. “What they did was invent a game-changing innovation when it was most needed—for us and grizzlies.”
New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly. He also wrote a feature story for the summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine about Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk. That issue of Mountain Outlaw is now on newsstands.