To spray or not to spray; the bear will answer that question

Jun 12, 2018


Eric Stuart with the Bureau of Land Management coaches the proper application of bear spray Monday at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor's Center.
Credit Shaylon Cochran/KDLL

When was the last time you actually discharged a can of bear spray? According to the experts, if you’re doing it right in bear country, you’ve never had to.



A team from the Bureau of Land Management was at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Monday night to show people how and when to use the deterrent. But perhaps more importantly, how to avoid needing to use it at all.


Eric Stuart has walked a lot of people through firing off a few grams of atomized capsaicin. Bear spray, if you will. He’s the School Programs Manager at the Campbell Creek Science Center in Anchorage and he says hearing people tell him they’ve used the skills they learned from him in the backcountry is kind of a successful failure.

“I do have a couple success stories where (someone said) I had to use my bear spray and it worked just like you said. But really, to me, all the success stories are going to be those encounters that never happened, that really can’t be captured. Being an educator in this line of work, I feel like the success stories are the stories that will never be told. They didn’t have that negative encounter because they were being loud, they were aware of their situation. That bear just laid down, munched on some food as they walked away and each party did their own thing.”

In short, the most desirable kind of bear encounter is the one that doesn’t happen. And Stuart says those probably occur all the time. We just don’t know it. Anecdotally, he likes to say that if you spend even a modicum of time in the backcountry, you’ve probably been in the vicinity of more than 100 bears, you just didn’t know it. They’re not any more interested in running into us than we are running into them. That’s where basically where Stuart’s course begins. Safe practices while on the trail and understanding how to interpret what a bear is doing if you do see one.


“Throughout this whole scenario, that bear’s behavior may change. That bear may be unaware of you, just chewing on whatever, laying down, looking around. Then you start to move away, that bear might become aware of you. So you’re going to change your response based on the bear’s behavior, knowing that bear’s behavior can change.”


There are specific signs to look for. The bear gets up on two legs to look around, begins sniffing incensently to try and figure out more about you. If you’re perceived as a danger, it may raise its hackles and even bluff charge. In all of those cases, though easier said than done, staying calm and standing your ground has been shown to ward off attack more often than not. The bear spray you’ve got on your’s on your belt and easy to get to with one hand, right? It shouldn’t be used until you’ve exercised all other options, talking the bear down, creating a big presence, showing it you’re not worth the trouble.

If you think it’s decided you are worth the trouble, spray at a downward angle to create a wall cloud of hot pepper between you and the bear. Check the bear’s reaction, slowly back away and be prepared for the next step, either continuing to calmly boogie out of there or maybe hosing the bear once more. The pepper spray that will inflame the upper respiratory tract and make the bear’s eyes water uncontrollably will only last about 10 minutes on the short end. But, again, it’s a last resort.


A lot of research has been done analyzing bear encounters to come up with strategies that give people the best chance of avoiding a full on attack.

“All of our approaches like to be very scientific because that’s the best way to learn. To learn from the past and (look at) what mistakes other people have made that we can learn from. We participate in international bear conferences where everybody gets together and talks about different situations in their local area and how they’ve been solving it. It’s not me making this up. It’s lots of people around the world are trying to find that balance between health wildlife populations and urban centers and public safety.”

And here more than anywhere else in the country, urban centers collide with wildlife habitat. Bear encounters in Alaska accounted for nearly a third of all bear encounters nationwide between 200 and 2017 and 17 percent of fatal attacks occur in Alaska’s bear country.