Bear Deterrence — Pepper Spray or Firearm?

Readers who have followed The Wildlife News for awhile may recall an ongoing and often cantankerous debate concerning the efficacy of firearms for deterring bear attacks.  While acknowledging that bear spray could be an effective deterrent, a few regular commenters argued vociferously that a gun would be more effective–at least for someone who could quickly and accurately discharge it.  The problem was, while researchers had evaluated the efficacy of bear/pepper spray, none had looked at firearms. A new analysis published in the Journal of Wildlife Management did just that.  The study, led by Tom Smith of Brigham Young University, compiled and reviewed 269 incidents of bear-human conflict that occurred in Alaska and involved the use of firearms.  In total, 218 involved grizzly/brown bears, 30 black bears, and 6 involved polar bears; the researchers estimated that 444 people and a minimum of 367 bears were involved in these incidents.  They found that “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not.”  However, bears will killed in almost two-thirds (61%) of bear-firearm incidents.  The study concludes:

“Firearms should not be a substitute for avoiding unwanted encounters in bear habitat.  Although the shooter may be able to kill an aggressive bear, injuries to the shooter and others sometimes occur.  The need for split-second deployment and deadly accuracy make using firearms difficult, even for experts…We encourage all persons, with or without firearm, to consider carrying a non-lethal deterrent such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater (i.e., 90% successful for all 3 North American Species of bear; Smith et al. 2008) than those we observed for firearms” [firearm success rates were 84% for handguns, 76% for rifles] (emphasis mine, p. 5-6).

So higher success rates, and the bear doesn’t have to die.  It seems bear spray is the clear winner by any criteria.  Hopefully, this will put to bed the long-standing debate on the efficacy of firearms as a bear deterrent–but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Citation: Smith, T.S., Herrero, S., Layton, C.S., Larsen, R.T. & K.R. Johnson. (2014) Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska, Journal of Wildlife Management DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.342.






  1. snaildarter Avatar

    I’m surprised the NRA didn’t block this research they have had many laws passed to block any research concerning firearms we must know their propaganda is BP

  2. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    Thanks so much for posting this!

  3. JB Avatar

    I suppose that with the departure of “Dave Smith”, this really isn’t controversial anymore.

  4. WM Avatar

    When I began to participate in the spray v. gun discussion I was pretty much in support of the latter as a preferred means, assuming a gun person had the skills to hit a hard charging target (probably only once with a rifle, or maybe a couple rounds with a beefy revolver). However, about two years ago, after having been convinced by a few folks, and seeing a couple of short video clips on how quickly a bear reacts negatively to spray, I changed my mind. I am now pretty firmly in the bear spray camp. The only caveat is that I am not too keen on carrying readily accessible bear spray while elk hunting with a large bore rifle. The canister is bulky and I don’t think I could rely on my instincts to deploy it with a rifle in my hands in a split second decision. Probably not too easy to have both at the ready at the same time. Doesn’t mean, however, that one wouldn’t carry spray in a backpack and pull it out if there was time to stage.

    I’m not to sure how the elk hunters in Teton NP,who are required to have bear spray there, carry it. Maybe someone here knows.

    I am also curious what our fisheries friends from Alaska think about bear spray vs a very large bore rifle that I understood was the preferred deterrent. Regrettably we haven’t heard much from SEAK Mossback recently. I do miss his input on a lot of topics.

    1. WM Avatar

      I had a brain fart in my earlier post. My once preferred carry in AK for summer backpacking was a shot gun. Remington 870 with shortened barrel and stock with a sling (done with a hack saw). This was before all these fancy modifications were available to modify them. Loaded with slugs and 00 buckshot. That weighs about 8 pounds loaded with a few extra rounds. Bear spray less than 1/4 the weight, and if there is an encounter, the bear walks away, maybe having learned a lesson. Big difference if one is backpacking over a long distance and up and down steep hills, too.

  5. MAD Avatar

    If this is the paper that is being referred to, it is not new. It was published in 2012 –

    I can tell you though, that after working in the Canadian sub-Arctic for 5 years (5 field seasons) on a research project, and being surrounded by Polar bears daily, NO ONE carried spray. I’m talking about researchers, park wardens, helicopter pilots, RMCP, homeowners, etc – everyone has shotguns. This is in the Churchill area, and within about 100 mile radius of Churchill.

    The main researcher I worked with has spent over 40 field seasons (about 75-90 days on the ground every year) working up there. The years I went up there with him, we never even talked about spray when preparing to go out in the field. And Parks Canada never required spray or even mentioned it as far I know regarding field work and researchers.

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Some of this is just convenience/economics also. You can’t carry/check bear spray with you if you board a commercial aircraft (per TSA specs), whereas you can carry a weapon in a checked bag. That means unless you provide a way to share use of the spray, it’s cheaper to bring a gun for those traveling to bear country. BTW, I support bear spray over firearms in principle.

      1. Jon Way Avatar

        Good point Mark L. My bear spray was just confiscated from my last trip to YNP a couple months ago. It is a pain to have to buy a new one but the sellers can’t sell used ones even if it has never been used… It would be nice to be able to rent them and not have the renters liable – ie, some way to ensure that it hasn’t been used… That way, more would be out in the backcountry protecting ppl and bears…

    2. Leslie Avatar

      I would suggest that polar bears are unique here, as they are among the very few mammals that are true carnivores.

      1. MAD Avatar

        All bears are omnivores, including pandas. Additionally, polar bears are not exclusively carnivorous. They actually eat quite a lot things other than meat. This is based on the fact that I have an entire freezer full of over 1500 samples of PB scat that have been analyzed.

  6. jerry collins Avatar
    jerry collins

    I carry a 454 Casuls in bear country and a bear spray can that looks like a fire extinguisher. I had a lot of confidence in my shooting till someone I know shot a large brown, diagonally with a 45/70, destroying every organ inside, but the bear still advanced over 50 feet and would have gotten him had it not been for 2 other hunters firing several shots. I just try to stay out of bear country,(especially browns) these days.

  7. topher Avatar

    I’m surprised to see the 84 percent rate for handguns, I would have guessed much lower for handguns and a little higher for rifles. It would be interesting to know which calibers of handguns were used. I assume shotguns were lumped in with rifles.

  8. John G Avatar
    John G

    When I was active on backpacking forums I often saw, and engaged in, the guns vs. spray discussions. The understanding I tried to pass on is that bear spray isn’t just for the hiker/backpacker…doesn’t just protect one on the trail…it also protects the bear. Bear spray is effective in deterring/stopping attacks before harm is done/contact made. Absent that human injury, bear managers most often let the bear be…there is no lethal ‘management.’

    Use bear spray and save a bear.

    1. rork Avatar

      Outstanding. So was the Immer comment below here.
      I wouldn’t mind more no guns regs in places just in order to remove that option more often. I’ve mentioned before that the reservation side of the Missions is that way. It makes you better at no trace goals. Yes, I’m OK with trading a few human lives for a few bear lives if need be.

      1. WM Avatar


        ++ I’ve mentioned before that the reservation side of the Missions is that way [no firearms on reservation wilderness]. ++

        Can you point us to an authoritative source on that claim? And, is that only for non-tribal members, or everyone, including tribal members with hunting rights? Just trying to understand the breadth of this restriction.

        1. rork Avatar

          Took a dig I admit (they don’t call themselves the Mission Indians like the white folks did)

          page 8 prohibits having firearms or archery equipment in the wilderness section. It’s just for non-members. Looks like the MacDonald peak area is still closed during the time of year I’d ever wanna go there too – there’s some insect (perhaps a ladybug) that brings the bears. I approve though – leave it to the bears.

          1. rork Avatar

            na, it’s army cutworm moths at MacDonald. (several articles, URLs very long)

  9. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Glad to read that the much less violent spray is as just as effective, and happy to avoid a violent mess of using a firearm. After all, we are entering their territory, and (supposedly) have the intelligence to discern a situation and value life of all forms.

  10. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Question as toward study validity/bias. One would think that bear spray only gets discharged upon approach of bear (limited effective range) so might only be used in that “emergency” circumstance, ergo, when it has to be deployed.

    Can the same be said for firearms, or might the firearm be discharged in a situation not actually necessary to do so? I’m not saying firearms should not be considered for bear protection, just that bear spray might be used only when it must be used, and guns, perhaps with a bit less discretion.

    1. WM Avatar


      You raise good questions. My cousin, an engineer and one time land surveyor in MT, had 3 separate intense grizzly encounters of note in his career. He has lots of other bear stories, as well, but mostly involving black bears and none were safety problems, though he has had some tear up field camps in search of food. Two grizzly encounters, while surveying, were successfully resolved by firing his ported barrel (makes it really loud) .41 magnum revolver in the direction of, but not at, the grizzly. All three involved challenges by the bears. The noise and the concussive force of the shots were enough to get the bears to run off, in two incidents. In the third encounter, the warning shots did not ward off the bear. He set himself for what he thought at the time would certainly be a charge, which did not happen. The bear, a large boar, did some huffing and grunting, then slowly moved off. So, maybe, even this third encounter was to some extent deterred by a couple warning shots, that gave the bear information not to his liking. This sort of thing, as you point out, would not have been possible with spray.

      One of his sons carries a .500 S&W. This hand gun is a very heavy newer double action revolver that is not fun to shoot or carry, when in grizzly country.

      Neither think much of spray, probably because they have confidence in the alternative and never used it. I just sent each the link to this study. Both are kind of scholarly and will read it. I await their responses, if they choose to provide one.

  11. Nancy Avatar

    Would be interesting to hear from our resident griz expert Kayla (if she’s near a computer 🙂

  12. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    According to Stephen Herrero (leading bear attack researcher) the main cause of bear attacks is when bears and humans get too close. Every victim (some with horrific injuries) he interviewed said it was their fault and they did not want the bear harmed. That tells me that they understood the risks involved and took accountability.

    Our best defense is our brain and after we have done everything possible to prevent an encounter, he found that 94% of agressive grizzly bears sprayed did not attack. In the remaining encounters, the bears did attack but the injuries were less severe than without this defense. In an encounter involving spray, the worst thing spray can do to humans and the bear is a terrible burning sensation whereas a firearm can cause death or injury to the bear (injured grizzly is now even more dangerous) or human.

    If I were working in Alaska or Canada, I would personally want both a firearm (in case of rare predatory attack or food habituated bear) and spray.

  13. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I was charged by a huge Alaskan Brown Bear while fishing at the mouth of the McNeil river. I was not allowed to bring bear spray on the float plane that brought me to the McNeil and since it is a bear sanctuary firearms were not allowed either. I was with two other fishermen and we stopped the charge by yelling and waving our arms. The bear stopped about 20 ft. away shrugged his shoulders, after looking us over, and returned to the beach to look for dead salmon.
    I am sure one of us would have shot the bear if we were armed. Bear spray would have been useless because of the high wind that was blowing.
    It would seem that standing your ground and yelling at the bear might be a third method of stopping a charge.

    I watched Larry Aumiller (the management person at McNeil) stop a charge by slapping a stick against his leg when a two year old cub charged us. So carrying a stick to slap your leg with might be charge stopper option number four.

  14. Leslie Avatar

    I was charged on a dog-hair lodgepole narrow trail in YNP at close quarters by a bison as I rounded a blind corner. Believe it or not, bear spray made that bull do a 90 degree turn and run away. So bear spray has other advantages!

  15. Scott MacButch Avatar

    The way I look at it, it is your choice to enter the bears domain, that and the fact that a high percentage of bear confrontations are bluff charges, behooves us to carry bear spray. In many bluff charges the bear will get within 20′ of you – if you have a .44 magnum you know what will happen – but with pepper spray the bear still lives. You pay your money, you take your chances.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      🙂 The bears don’t have to worry about me, if they want to show dominance of the landscape with bluff charges, I have nothing to prove and will gladly turn and go the other way!


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Jeremy Bruskotter