By: Spencer Durrant
Near the luggage carousel in the Fairbanks, Alaska International Airport is a stuffed polar bear. A brass plaque declares that the bear is “world record size.” Given the size of the glass case built to house the behemoth, I wouldn’t argue that claim.
I was visiting Alaska recently on a fishing trip, and that stuffed bear was yet another reminder that I wasn’t in the Rockies anymore. The bears here are predominantly black bears – the smallest of the three main species which inhabit North America. Black bears can usually be scared off with loud noises, and they rarely attack humans.
Alaska is a different story, however. A few nights before I flew out, a friend asked what gun I was taking with me on the trip. I wasn’t taking one. I didn’t want to give the TSA yet another excuse to pull me aside for additional “random” screening, which happens whenever I fly with firearms.
My buddy couldn’t fathom us spending 11 days in Alaska without a gun, and that dug up the old guns versus spray debate. I thought it was pretty well dead and buried, but apparently more than a few folks still think a handgun has a better shot at defending a bear attack than spray does.
Hitting the Mark
In a situation where a 300lb+ mammal with sharp claws and teeth is trying to kill you, there’s zero room for error. That’s why bear spray was invented.
In 2016, hunting expert Stephen Rinella shared some great insight about guns versus bear spray during an interview with Frank van Manen, from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
“It is 90 percent effective to deter an attack with bear spray versus 76 percent for long guns and 84 percent for handguns,” Manen said.
The numbers for handguns and bear spray aren’t as far apart as you may expect. But one thing that’s not taken into consideration in Manen’s report is noted in a 2012 paper by Polar Bears International on the use of firearms to deter bear attacks:
“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 other also sometimes occur. The need for split-second deployment and deadly accuracy make using firearms difficult, even for experts.”
The short of it is that few people, if any, are quick enough on the draw to pull a handgun, aim, and mortally wound a bear in one or two shots. That’s also banking on the shooter being aware of accidentally hitting someone else with a stray round under such duress. It’s hard enough to focus on shooting when facing a bear, let alone looking to make sure you have a clear line of sight before you do.
Deter Without Killing
I’m an avid hunter. You won’t find store-bought meat in my freezer. If I didn’t shoot, catch, or grow it, I’m likely not eating it.
As much as I enjoy hunting, though, seeing nature at its most unassuming is a bigger thrill for me. So unless there’s a really good reason to kill an animal – like eating it – I’m a big fan of deterrent methods.
Bear attacks, unless deliberately provoked (or in rare cases where a bear has lost its natural fear of humans), are almost always a natural response to what the bear perceives as a threat. You don’t have to be between a sow and her cubs to pose a threat to her offspring; depending on the bear, just being near her and the cubs is enough to set her off.
Spray will stop an attack 90 percent of the time without killing a bear. And if you think about it, does a bear really deserve to die if it’s acting on instinct? Bear attacks frequently take place in bear country – the remote, high wilderness areas we haven’t managed to destroy, sell off, or develop yet. We’re very much visiting their home when we’re in bear country. It’s up to us to avoid attacks, or else mitigate them with nonlethal options.
Spray has been touted as the better alternative to guns for bear defense for years. With more and more brands making bear spray, their use has only gotten easier – and more effective. That being said, I personally carry both spray and a gun when in bear country. It’s better to be prepared for any eventuality than not at all.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has been published in multiple national fly fishing magazines. Spencer is the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum, and you can connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.