Friday, August 14, 2015

Why I Choose Not to Carry Bear Spray in Wild Grizzly Country

I've spent most of my life roaming around in and as part of the wilds -- not like a visiting alien (or photographer) who is just there to visit and observe life around me, but like a part of it all that belongs there. I have had very close encounters with wild grizzlies in remote, wild places, including having been bluff charged once. When the sow was assured I presented no threat to her cubs, she left. I think in that situation bear spray may have conveyed fear, a possible threat, and perhaps escalated the situation. No telling. But it's as valid an assumption as those who assume bear spray will always save them, despite their obvious lack of experience and knowledge.

In my 35 years roaming the wilds it's the closest call I've had with a bear and it's doubtful it will happen again. I've learned a lot more about wild bears, their behavior and how to safely travel through bear country since then.

I don't need or want weapons or potential threats with me when I enter the wilds -- I believe (from experience) that they bring about a false sense of security and convey a nervous sense of potential danger to wild animals who are pretty attune to such things. I prefer to rely on my brain, knowledge and senses. Thus far, it has served me well. I respect bears too much, and trust them too much, to feel I need to carry a weapon or potential threat into their home.

When my friend Bud Moore was still alive he told me about several grizzlies that regularly roamed his land in the Seeley-Swan Valley of Montana. Once, some biologists from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks requested to catch collar the bears as part of a study. He refused. "I came to trust those bears and they trusted me," he says. "I gave them their space and they gave me mine. We had an understanding. I did not want to violate that trust."

Bud never carried bear spray.  

Bear spray has been shown to be a possibly good, non-lethal deterrent to bear attacks but can be adversely affected by wind, rain, temperature, and even how close the bear is when it charges. When a bear is sprayed with the canned mixture of capsaicin and related capsaicinoids it will affect the eyes, nose, throat and lungs of a bear. In the actual incidences of its use against bears it seemed to make a difference, but the researchers involved admit that they have no clue as to what the results may have been if the people involved did not have bear spray. There are several incidences in which people used bear spray and the bears kept charging, more angry for it.

In most incidences in which people were attacked by bears and responded using knowledge of bears and their behavior, people (and the bears) survived. Lance Crosby, a Billings, Montana man who was recently killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone National park, was not killed because he was did not carry bear spray -- as many sanctimonious people like to claim -- he was killed because he unfortunately stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time and responded in the wrong way by allegedly running and fighting a grizzly who just wanted to ensure her cubs were safe. Unfortunately, the Park Service chose to kill the bear in response and send her cubs off to a live of confinement in a zoo. (See To Kill a Grizzly or Not to Kill?) Would bear spray have saved him and the bears? Maybe. We'll never know.

I do not judge those who carry bear spray. If they lack knowledge, experience and confidence then perhaps it can help save lives of people and bears. But I choose not to carry something extra that I don't need or want that may convey something to wild animals contradictory to how I feel.When I hike alone in grizzly country I keep alert at a level I have rarely experienced outside of the wilds. I feel more alive and connected than I have ever felt outside of the wilds. Bears intimately know their world -- most of the time I am sure they can hear, smell and sense my presence. Sometimes I can hear, smell and sense them. When I do I go to full alert, I back off, I act as non-threatening as possible and I give them the space and respect they demand and deserve. I feel less-threatening without the can of spray; I feel safer and more attune without it.

I also don't wear a lightning rod or life jacket, or carry a defibrillator, even though I am far more likely to get hit by lightning, drown or have a heart attack in the wilds than be charged by a wild animal.

If by some very, very slim and unlikely chance I were to ever be killed by a grizzly, it is unlikely anyone would know what happened, investigate the incident, publish it in the news, or want to kill the bear involved -- I also tend to avoid hiking in popular places, get way off trail into the most remote places I can find, and I rarely tell people where I am going or when (or if) I will be back.

I don't like human-created "protocol" -- I immerse myself into the wilds to get away from societal-created norms, expectations and "protocol."

I feel pretty damn comfortable in the wilds. I try and rely on a brain fed by knowledge and experience, not capsaicinoids in a can.

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