When confronting an angry grizzly bear in the woods, the last thing you want to worry about is the fine print on your can of bear spray.

There's a lot of it. And as customers scour the shelves for protection in the wake of recent fatal bear attacks, the fine print matters.

"We have reordered," Trail Head outdoors store manager Gabe Millar said of his bear spray supply. "It usually sells early in the season when everybody's getting ready for backpacking. For this time of year, we've seen a real increase."

Two grizzly-caused deaths near Yellowstone National Park this summer, combined with celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna's bear spray encounter in Glacier National Park and the recent PBS documentary recounting the 1967 "Night of the Grizzlies" incident, have made bear protection a priority for backcountry visitors.

But there are a lot of tactical decisions to make in a bear incident, some of which start in the sporting goods store.

"Everyone sees the price of the big cans, and they ask, ‘Can't I get a smaller one?' " Army Navy Economy Store manager Eric Langhammer said. This starts the ongoing discussion of what bear spray is and is not.

The first issue is that while bear sprays are a kind of pepper spray, not all pepper sprays are bear sprays. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certifies only four manufacturers (including two in Montana) to make "bear spray."

"When you say pepper spray, it is misleading," said Tim Lynch of Universal Defense Alternative Products, the Bozeman-based bear spray maker. "Law enforcement spray is pepper spray, but it isn't considered bear spray. You want people to pick up the correct product."

The difference involves what's in the can and how it's meant to be used. Chemicals like Mace and other tear gas-type sprays have little effect on bears. The ingredient you're looking for is oleoresin of capsicum, an extremely potent essence of chili peppers.

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The second part involves how the spray is delivered. Bear sprays aren't meant to be squirted directly on an oncoming bear. Instead, the idea is to throw up a misty wall of irritants for the bear to run into.

"When a bear decides to charge, it's gathering information as it charges," said Chuck Bartlebaugh, who heads the Be Bear Aware campaign for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. "What it hears, sees, smells - it's all part of the charge. Bear spray removes their focus. They don't like losing their ability to smell and see. They don't like the whooshing noise and the orange cloud."

That's why bear sprays don't appear to deter non-aggressive bears, which may move around a spray cloud but remain in the area. It's also not to be used as a repellant like mosquito spray. Hikers have found cans of bear spray in Glacier National Park that bears have bitten through.

Some thought should go into the spraying action, too. Bartlebaugh demonstrated how one-handed use of a canister's thumb-trigger tends to tilt the spray upward. The suggested tactic is to aim flat or down at a space between you and the bear, preferably at least

25 feet away. That helps ensure the bear runs into the cloud instead of under it.

Bear spray canisters fire a shotgun pattern cloud that travels out like long-distance wasp spray. But sprayers still need to be aware of wind direction and rain, which can limit the spray's range. Some of the manufacturers are still disputing how long and far the cans should discharge.

Nevertheless, a 2006 study found that only

2 percent of those using bear spray in a bear attack were injured, compared to 50 percent of those who depended on a firearm to defend themselves.

"Especially now that you can carry guns in the national parks and people might be shooting at bears when they don't need to, we want to make sure people know what they're doing," Bartlebaugh said. "When it comes to saving grizzlies in the (IGBC) recovery program, bear spray plays an important part in that."

Add to that the growing incidences of tourists misbehaving around bears, chasing them with cameras and leaving food to attract them, and the risks to bears is growing. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wardens are checking reports that a photographer may have been baiting animals near the Soda Butte Campground where a sow grizzly killed a camper on July 28.

"We have a whole generation of people thinking it's OK to approach bears," Bartlebaugh said. "In shark country, if you holler ‘shark,' everyone gets out of the water. In the bear world, if you holler ‘bear,' everybody runs into the woods."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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