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Bear spray or bullets? Staying safe in grizzly country

Posted at 7:50 AM, Oct 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-22 09:57:34-04

GREAT FALLS — As the grizzly population increases, so does the chance of an encounter with one.

But is there an ideal way to defend yourself in the event that the interaction takes a turn for the worst?

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 Supervisor Gary Bertellotti says there is.

“Bear spray is an effective tool to deter grizzly bears, black bears, or any other animal that may be approaching or attacking,” Bertellotti said.

Gun-store owner and bear-spray-seller Tom VanHoose says otherwise.

“It has some benefit but if you’re betting your life on the bear being warded off with the bear spray, good luck,” VanHoose said.

He argues bear spray is essentially the same as pepper spray. “Bear spray, pepper spray. All the same thing,” VanHoose said,

However, Bertolli contends that while bear spray is a form of pepper spray, it's more reliable since it’s FDA-approved.

“Pepper spray is not FDA approved, but bear spray is,” Bertellotti said. “It’s been certified by the FDA and has a certain concentration of pepper in it, whereas pepper spray- you never know what you’re gonna get.”

When fending off bears, VanHoose prefers a firearm to bear spray.

“Bear spray, if they don’t get it in their nostrils, their fur, it’s not gonna hit their skin like you and I... we would be...our skin would immediately react, but, the bear, because of the fur, unless you get it right in the face it doesn’t really have much effect,” VanHoose said.

Just like the mist of bear spray might miss the bear’s face, so might a bullet miss the bear. But Bertellotti believes the chance of error is less with bear spray.

“That’s the difference between bear spray and the effectiveness of a firearm...[Bear spray] creates this big area of effectiveness where some of these things are very concentrated and if you miss, you miss,” Bertellotti said.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no deterrent is 100 percent effective, but compared to firearms, bear spray is the best and safest method for fending off bears and preventing injury to oneself or the attacking animal.

While the bear buffs might disagree on which defense is more effective, they both agree that when responding to a bear attack, safety is key.

Here are some instructions from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks on how to safely use bear spray:

  • Remove safety clip.
  • Aim slightly down and toward the approaching bear. If necessary, adjust for cross wind.
  • Spray a brief shot when the bear is about 25 feet away.
  • Spray again if the bear continues to approach.
  • Once the bear has retreated or is busy cleaning itself, leave the area as quickly as possible but don't run. Go to an immediate area of safety, such as a car or building.
  • Do not chase or pursue the bear.
  • Be aware that extreme heat or cold may affect the performance of the product.

Click here for more information on how best to defend yourself against a bear.

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