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The New West: Confronting your own moment of truth with grizzly bear spray

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Contributor

Six seconds: A flash of time and yet, as the adage goes, if it means putting a hand in boiling water or having one’s head in the mouth of a grizzly bear can seem an eternity.

A world-class human sprinter, running 21.7 miles per hour, can cover 60 yards—120 feet—in roughly that time. A charging grizzly can reach a speed of 44 miles an hour. Do the math in calculating how long it might take for a bruin to close the distance of half a football field.

Now heighten the urgency of the equation by putting yourself in the picture—on the potential receiving end of a mauling—with literally a moment to react.

Will the bruin hurling toward you halt; continue to advance; what are its intentions? Should you stand your ground; drop to the earth and brace; or reach for a holster, extract what’s in it and begin firing?

Reading these words and soaking them in just took half a minute.

Is your blood pumping yet? How long does six seconds seem when it’s an agitated grizzly bear mother with cubs rapidly bearing down on you?

During a meeting in Missoula, Montana, in early December 2016, something extraordinary happened. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, the government entity comprising federal and state agencies involved in the management of grizzlies in the northern Rockies, rescinded the long-standing “six-second rule” when it comes to suggested requirements for bear spray.

To the uninformed, “bear spray” is the non-lethal deterrent many hikers and hunters carry to thwart bruin attacks; think of it as being akin to a specially-concocted Mace designed specifically to halt bears. As far as keeping people and bears alive when their paths collide, bear spray has been a radical game-changing invention over the last quarter century.

Prior to bear spray’s arrival, lots of grizzlies were killed by people with firearms, their deaths representing a major challenge for those wildlife managers trying to pull back grizzly populations in the Lower 48 states from the brink of extirpation. It was not uncommon—it still isn’t—for people shooting bears, and claiming self-defense, to also get injured, if not killed.

Bear spray, according to extensive research and expert opinion, has proved itself to be more effective and reliable than bullets.

At its annual end of year meeting, the grizzly bear committee voted to abandon the six-second rule based upon a request from a lawyer representing a bear spray brand called UDAP, founded by Montana bear attack survivor Mark Matheny, who was badly-injured while on an archery hunt in September 1992.

UDAP had argued in June 2016 that the six-second rule gave, essentially, preferential treatment to another, older bear-spray brand, Counter Assault, that, in the eyes of some, has been considered the reliable gold standard for bear sprays.

Engineered by Vietnam veteran Bill Pounds and developed with research insights gleaned by the late Chuck Jonkel and Carrie Hunt—herself today an internationally recognized trainer of bear dogs used to protect domestic livestock—Counter Assault had four principal priorities in the beginning:

1. To reduce the number of lethal outcomes for both humans and bears and serve as an alternative to guns; 2. To have a proven chemical composition capable of thwarting a charging bear by temporarily disabling its senses of smell, taste, and sight; 3. Possess enough spray in a can to last for at least seven seconds to give a human user enough time to start spraying long before a bear was merely feet away; and 4. Project a forceful cloud of atomized spray that would remain suspended in the air, essentially creating a fog that a bear had to pass through before it reached you.

Counter Assault emerged from tests done on captive bears in Missoula.

Let’s make it clear for those urban New Yorkers who might be reading this: bear spray is not applied like mosquito repellent; think of it as a giant can of hair spray filled with stuff that knocks out a bear’s ability to use its olfactory (smelling) system, vital to its confidence in confronting a threat.

As the oldest major bear spray brand (it has been the brand of choice for many bear researchers) and considering Jonkel’s longstanding role in advancing bear conservation, Counter Assault set, in a de-facto way, the high bar for what other bear sprays ought to do.

Before Counter Assault could go to market, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed testing on the ingredients to insure they did not permanently harm people or bruins, and the agency handed down requirements that all cans hold at least 7.9 ounces of chemicals. A few years after Counter Assault was developed, UDAP emerged and it was forced to meet the same standards established by EPA.

A can of Counter Assault casts a spray that lasts between 7.2 and 9.2 seconds. UDAP offers three different sizes of bear spray. The can that is comparable in size to Counter Assault emits a spray with a duration of approximately four seconds.

While such data might seem wonky and inconsequential, those involved with bear spray say otherwise.

What the IGBC change means, in layperson’s terms, is that no longer will the bear committee suggest that cans of spray hold enough repellent that, when the trigger is squeezed, guarantees a blast of ingredients lasting at least six seconds.

This unexpected move was shocking to Chuck Bartlebaugh, who, more than any other person in the U.S., has been a bear spray evangelist, trying to educate the masses about why bear spray has worked in reducing the number of maulings. He points in particular to the investigations of Dr. Tom Smith, a professor at Brigham Young University, who along with noted bear attack expert Stephen Herrero and others, has penned scientific papers on the effectiveness of stopping bear attacks using guns versus bear spray in Alaska.

“Most of the public out there, especially people traveling from urban areas to Yellowstone or Glacier, aren’t that familiar with bear spray and how it works,” Bartlebaugh said. “They don’t know there are different brands and they certainly don’t know there is a big difference between Mace, pepper spray, and bear spray. And they don’t know that even if you have bear spray, unless you’re able to extract it in seconds, it’s of little use.

“Being well armed with knowledge is the greatest asset for safe travel in grizzly country,” he adds. “Being ignorant is dangerous.”

In general, bear spray has been spectacularly effective and while he stops short of suggesting Counter Assault is superior to UDAP, Bartlebaugh says this: “Every split second you can buy yourself when faced with a charging grizzly matters. You can cram 7.9 ounces of chemical ingredients into a can and meet EPA requirements but what makes the difference is how it is dispensed. Decades ago, when Bill Pounds went before the IGBC asked how many seconds a can of bear spray should last, and Pounds said Counter Assault could project a reliable spray lasting seven seconds, the reply from Chris Servheen [the now retired national grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] and others was ‘at least seven seconds’ and ‘the longer the better.’”

Matheny and UDAP have been involved in a fierce competition for market share with Counter Assault, with some outdoor gear retailers only carrying one brand or the other. The photo of Matheny’s bloody face, snapped after his fateful encounter with a grizzly in Montana’s Gallatin Canyon, became his attention-grabbing calling card in stores.

When Bartlebaugh—whom I’ve known for 20 years—called me in the wake of the IGBC decision, he was incredulous, mostly because he believes the move sends a confusing message to a mostly uninformed public. That message is that people, when navigating bear country, can now let down their guard a bit.

The EPA’s permit approval process for bear spray addresses toxicity of ingredients and amount of ingredients in a can; it does not deal with the intricacies of how it is deployed, for example in proscribing how far the fog of spray is projected.

Frank van Manen, who oversees the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a research unit whose staff has had thousands upon thousands of contact hours with wild grizzlies, told me the IGBC did not want to be in a position where it was perceived to be endorsing one bear spray brand over another.

“There’s something to be said for manufacturers themselves specifying best use of their own product rather than an organization like the IGBC being overly prescriptive on what the criteria should be,” Van Manen said, noting that the IGBC doesn’t have the resources to function in a regulatory capacity like EPA.

Matheny believed the IGBC’s six second rule gave Counter Assault an unfair advantage. Bartlebaugh, however, says the suggested IGBC recommendation was based on observed bear behavior, not as a marketing ploy to benefit Counter Assault.

I contacted Matheny and asked him these questions:

Todd Wilkinson: What were your main concerns in bringing this issue up to the IGBC?

Mark Matheny: UDAP’s focus is the safety of people who are hunting, fishing and recreating in grizzly and black bear habitat. Our company and products are dedicated to helping to keep people and wildlife safe. It was concerning that the guidelines were not based on scientific data. Although UDAP does produce a spray that meets the guidelines, the guidelines of the IGBC were used to promote a brand and a product endorsement was a result of them. Bear sprays are proven an effective tool and science shows that all brands of EPA registered bear sprays are working to stop bears.

T.W.: What is your reaction to the IGBC decision and does it meet your concerns?

M.M.: We at UDAP are very pleased with the decision. The actions of the IGBC promise to help achieve proper education of bear spray by recommending consumers to use an EPA approved bear spray and to follow the informed guidance of the manufacturer of the product regarding its proper use. In making this change, the IGBC members demonstrated leadership and courage in the interests of public safety through their reliance on available data and proven experience, rather than uninformed or biased opinions regarding the use of bear spray. People who live in grizzly country and who visit these wild lands are safer today and will gain more confidence in the use of bear spray due to the promised update to the IGBC bear spray guidelines.

T.W.: What about the concerns expressed about duration of bear spray coming out of the can?

M.M.: As a grizzly bear attack survivor, I believe that in a bear attack you want to have a high-volume spray. Studies show that in most cases you have less than two seconds to react before the bear reaches you. It’s not a matter of how long the can sprays in a constant duration. Bear spray is designed to be deployed in repeated bursts of spray. It’s more about being prepared and knowing how to operate your spray and following the manufacturer’s instructions on the label. To get more spray in seconds does not make a can have more spray. High volume bear spray works.

UDAP offers three sizes of bear spray: a can with 7.9 ounces of repellent that sprays for approximately four seconds; a 9.2-ounce can that lasts for 5.4 seconds; and a 13.4-ounce can with a continuous spray of seven seconds.

Based upon his research of bear attacks, Bartlebaugh says four seconds is too short. He asserts that bigger cans, which can forcefully project a spray with greater carry, provide a better cushion.

“My recommendation is that when a charging bear gets within 60 feet, the user should start spraying for 2 to 3 seconds so a cloud is 30 feet out when the bear gets there and enters the cloud. You don’t worry about aiming at the face, the eyes or nose. You just get that cloud out there. In many incidents previously reported in newspapers, bears that encountered the fog would break off their charge,” Bartlebaugh said.

“But it’s not uncommon for bears to not be seen because they’re in thick brush or laying in day beds or suddenly appear from closer distances. In those cases you spontaneously spay the front the front of the bear, slightly downward, and keep spraying until it breaks off its charge or you decide to go to the ground and lay flat.”

But there can be complications. More than one bear may actually be in an area as in the case of hikers moving through berry patches and stumbling upon a carcass where bears are feeding.

“Other variables are that if you have rain or a headwind or side-wind, the spray can get blown out of the bear’s path, so you better have enough reserve,” Bartlebaugh said. “And, if you’re only carrying one can, you should have a little left for the hike out should the bear happen to return as it did with Todd Orr.” [Read Bartlebaugh’s assessment of the 2016 bear attack on Orr here].

I spoke with Gary Moses, who spent nearly 30 years as a ranger in both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, each known for their grizzly populations. He was involved with teams that reviewed the causes of several bear attacks.

Today, Moses serves as product ambassador for Counter Assault to help with its public education initiatives. He notes that the duration of bear spray is important because people, when forced to take quick action when confronted by a grizzly, will sometimes deploy bear spray too soon and press down on the trigger until the can is empty.

“Their initial deployment is for a lot longer than they think and they spray the entire contents is one burst,” he says. “It is really important that, for bear spray to be most effective, you get a concentrated dose into the space of the animal. If you use up your can at 25 to 30 feet and have nothing left, that’s when there can be problems. Bear spray works when properly deployed. But ask anyone who’s been attacked by a bear and they’ll invariably say, ‘They wish their can of product had been able to spray longer.’”

Moses notes there’s a question he receives more than any other. “It might be a trail runner, jogger, mountain biker or walker who lives near bear habitat. They want to carry the smallest and least-expensive can of bear spray possible and, as a result, they confuse personal defense pepper spray, which comes in small cans, with bear spray.”

Moses and Bartlebaugh worry that recreationists in grizzly country might interpret the abandonment of the six-second rule as a reason to be less vigilant. Van Manen says the advantages of bear spray, as a class of non-lethal weapon, are clear.

“There are reasons why bear spray should be the first choice for anybody recreating in bear country,” he says, pointing to Smith’s research in Alaska that showed bear spray to be 90 percent effective in deterring attacks by grizzly, black and polar bears. In contrast, there was 84 percent success with people who used handguns and a 76 percent success rate with long-guns. Another danger with choosing firearms, van Manen notes, is that shooters have sometimes inadvertently shot themselves or their backcountry companions. “Nobody gets seriously injured or hurt when they misfire using bear spray,” he said.

For Bartlebaugh, bear spray has yet to achieve its full promise which is keeping more people and grizzlies alive on the landscape. “The first major victory in reducing bear mortality was the advent of bear spray, which was huge,” he says. “But the real triumph will be when a much higher percentage of people, especially hunters, actually carry it and know how to use it effectively.”

Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He is author of the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. His article, “2067: The Clock Struck Thirteen,” appears in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, on shelves now. EBS publishes Wilkinson’s New West column every week online and twice a month in the printer version of the paper, under a partnership arrangement with the Wyoming online journal We encourage you to check out The Bullseye.

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