Arts & Entertainment
Why wasn’t bear spray more effective in Todd Orr’s grizzly attack?
By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – The video that Bozemanite Todd Orr took immediately after he was attacked twice by a grizzly sow has circulated the world. The Facebook post in which he recounts his Oct. 1 attack has been viewed more than 38 million times.
After describing some of his injuries—a deep gash on his scalp, a shoulder injury soaking his shirt through with blood and “pieces of stuff hanging out” of his punctured arm—Orr closed the video with an observation: “Bear spray doesn’t always work, but it’s better than nothing.”
Orr, owner of Skyblade knives, is known to be a competent woodsman with good judgment: he made noise while hiking on the trail to avoid startling a grizzly; he had bear spray with him; and when contact was inevitable, he huddled in the dirt with his arms protecting his neck, as is recommended.
So why did the grizzly sow, which had two cubs with her, blast through his “full charge of bear spray” and attack him—an experience he described as being bitten by a “sledge hammer with teeth … over and over again”—not once, but twice?
According to Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of Be Bear Aware, the answer to those questions has to do with distance and perceived threat.
Everything inside 30 feet exists within what Bartlebaugh calls the “potential contact zone,” meaning you can expect bear spray to minimize the length and severity of an attack, but not prevent it.
“He waited to spray it until the bear was 25 feet away—too late,” said Bartlebaugh, who has been studying bear spray since 1985. “If he started to spray the bear when it was 25 feet away, when his thumb went down, the bear was then 20 feet away and charging. The bear then met the cloud from 8-10 feet away, approximately 1/10 of a second and a blink of an eye from actual contact.”
Presumably in response to the massive interest that’s been generated by the encounter, Orr set up a website, thetoddorr.com. Orr did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, but wrote on his website, “I used bear spray when I thought she was about the max distance my spray would reach, and kept the trigger down until she burst through the fog and was literally on me.”
Orr wrote that he didn’t shoot the bear with the pistol he had on him for several reasons, one being bear spray is found to be more effective than a pistol against a charging bear. A study by Brigham Young University wildlife science professor Tom Smith published in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that 98 percent of people carrying sprays were uninjured in close-range bear encounters.
The listed spray distance of a 10-ounce can of Counter Assault, considered by Bartelbaugh to be the best available bear spray, is 32-plus feet. It should be noted that’s the distance the spray will cover, not the distance at which a potential bear attack victim should start spraying. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, a grizzly can cover 50 yards in three seconds.
After the initial encounter, Orr wrote that he “half hiked, half jogged down the trail” toward his truck, which was parked 3 miles away. Five to 10 minutes later, the sow was on him again.
Bartlebaugh, who works to keep bears wild by limiting encounters between humans and bears, hypothesizes that the thumping sound of Orr’s footfalls as he jogged away prompted the grizzly to go back into protective mode. He added, “Everyone assumes when they’re attacked by a bear it’s going to go away in the opposite direction—[that’s] not always true.”
Another round of biting ensued, prompting Orr to gasp for breath in pain. The sound triggered a frenzy of bites to his shoulder and upper back. Another bite opened up a gash above his ear. Then the grizzly stopped and just stood on Orr. “For thirty seconds, she stood there crushing me,” Orr wrote. “And then she was gone.”
Those 30 seconds could explain the second encounter.
Scott McMillion, who studied dozens of bear attacks while researching his book “The Mark of the Grizzly,” said the grizzly might have attacked him again because she thought he was coming back for her, or that he hadn’t been properly dominated.
“Bears usually stop attacking people … once they’re satisfied that they’ve been dominated,” McMillion said.
Most people survive grizzly attacks, McMillion said. “If they wanted to kill us, they’d kill us in short order,” he said, adding that he hopes people continue to carry bear spray in bear country.
In an Oct. 6 email, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Grizzly Bear Specialist Kevin Frey said the agency does not have plans to capture the bear involved because the encounter occurred in expected bear habitat, and it appears to have been more of a surprise encounter than predatory behavior by the bear. The Forest Service has temporarily closed a number of trails in the Bear Creek area south of Ennis where Orr’s attack occurred.
In March 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List. Grizzlies have been listed as threatened since 1975.
Frey said although there have been a number of grizzly encounters within a short time frame—including two late September attacks on bow hunters in southwest Montana in a two-day stretch—it’s “not at a level we haven’t seen before.”
As their population has recovered, grizzlies are expanding their range to new drainages and mountain ranges, Frey said. The National Park Service estimates there are 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“They’re out there in expanding numbers,” Bartelbaugh said. “Think about it: if you’re in a new neighborhood, are you a little edgy? So are bears.”