Mike Bader

There is an annual rite that has to end. The rash of deadly incidents in recent weeks involving grizzly bear-human encounters are instructive as to why you need to carry bear spray, know how to use it and have it readily available.

Near Whitefish, hunters scouting out land run into a grizzly bear in thick brush and shoot it, one wounding the other man in the shoulder. In the Tom Miner Basin near Yellowstone fishermen encounter a grizzly in thick brush and shoot it. Outside West Yellowstone a jogger was tragically killed in thick forest. No bear spray was found.

Near Big Sky hunters follow a deer into thick forest where they encounter a “small bear” and then a large female grizzly. One man is seriously injured by the grizzly while another attempted to shoot the bear with a rifle which mis-fired. He said he didn’t have time to get his bear spray out of his backpack. In eastern Idaho two hunters encounter a grizzly in thick brush and shoot it.

The common denominator in these incidents is that no bear spray was used or accessible despite persistent warnings. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks issued a bulletin on August 30th titled Hunters Must Expect to See Bears, which begins with: “Grizzly bears have the potential to be found anywhere in the western two-thirds of Montana (west of Billings), and their distribution is denser and more widespread than in previous years.

Some areas with dense concentrations of grizzly bears are very accessible to hunters, especially during the archery season.” Their leading recommendation is to carry bear spray.

Armed bear managers say they go for the bear spray first because it is more effective. A bullet travels a narrow pathway and under extreme stress most people don’t have the training or experience to aim accurately. Bear spray creates a cloud that has been proven effective at deterring or ending bear attacks.

At this time of year when hunters begin taking the field they must be aware and prepared for the possibility of encountering a grizzly bear. Archery hunters are especially vulnerable due to the tendency of using thick brush for cover, silent stealthy movements, use of scents to cover human smells and hunting alone.

Hunters are particularly vulnerable while skinning and butchering harvested animals. Bear spray must be out of its holster and ready for deployment. If possible, a lookout should be posted while in this process. Hunters also need to be aware that gut piles left by other hunters will attract grizzly bears who may defend them.

Running in grizzly habitat is a bad idea and even when near residential areas one must be prepared as some people have very poor food and garbage practices to which grizzly bears can become habituated and will return to take risks to obtain an easy meal.

This issue is not new to bear managers. Conservation groups petitioned the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission in 2018 to develop an Administrative Rule requiring hunters to carry bear spray. There were 13 hunter-related defense of life grizzly bear kills within the borders of Montana in 2017 alone, an alarming statistic. Despite these facts they punted by saying that it is the responsibility of the Legislature.

It’s time to require that people hunting and recreating on public lands off-road in grizzly habitat carry bear spray, know how to use it and have it immediately available.  Sponsors in the State Senate and House of Representatives are being sought. Until then, play it safe and smart in bear country and carry bear spray, which is proven to be effective at deterring attacks.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana who has experience in grizzly bear management and research and has authored peer-reviewed scientific papers on grizzly bears and their habitat.