by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
August 20, 1998
You're camping in grizzly country, which, by the way, includes every acre in the Swan and Clearwater valleys. You've done everything by the book. Your camp is spotless, your pots and pans are sparkling clean, your dish water was discarded well away from your tent and your food and garbage are hung high and far in the distance.
So, why is that grizzly bear rolling like a cat with catnip in the middle of your camp?
That's the question Tom Smith recently investigated and answered in the latest issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin.. Actually, Tom didn't find a bear in his camp, but he was curious about one he observed "rolling vigorously on beach gravels in Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Did I mention that the beach gravels had been accidentally doused with red paper spray?
Red pepper spray is the stuff many of us carry as a last resort in case of a bear or lion attack. It has been demonstrated as effective in halting aggressive grizzly bear behavior in 88% of incidents studied by experts, and is recommended by agencies as something to carry in the backcountry.
But, is it really "bearnip" in a can? And, do carriers of pepper spray risk being rubbed to death by a grizzly bear?
Tom Smith's experiment involved spraying several test sites in bear travel corridors with a four second burst of commercially available pepper sprays. Then he waited for bears and watched their reactions from blinds he constructed nearby. He was rewarded with a total of 40 visits from 13 different groups of brown bears.
The bears displayed no apparent response in 40% of their encounters with pepper spray, but were observed to be highly responsive in 28% of the cases. Slight or moderate responses accounted for the remaining 32%. Observed behaviors included sniffing, pawing, licking, head rubbing and 11 occurrences of bears rolling their entire body on the pepper spray residue.
Tom reported that he and his field crews had never observed bears rubbing their heads on the ground, pawing and licking soils, or rolling on their backs during more than 750 hours of time spent observing brown bears previously in the same area, and could only conclude that red pepper spray was the cause. What's more, bears were observed to react strongly to pepper spray residues that were five days old, and he speculated that effects might persist much longer.
While pepper spray is an irritant and deterrent when forcibly sprayed in the face of an animal, it is not something to be left lying around. For example, pepper spray manufacturers suggest that you test fire your pepper spray to become familiar with the spray pattern and range. That may be good advice, but now we know that test firing should be done before you enter bear country, and it should never be done in camp. Otherwise, you risk holding the interest of bears in places you would rather have them ignore.
Also, consider that the place you spray may not be a place you intend to rest or camp in, but what about other hikers who unknowingly visit the same area? When they round that corner on the trail, they may find themselves face to face with a completely distracted and surprised grizzly bear. You may be long gone, but your pepper spray residue may still be there, and it poses an invisible hazard for others in grizzly country.
And, I hope this dissuades any of you who might be considering using pepper spray around your camp as a repellent. Just a few shots around the perimeter will surely keep bears away, you might assume. Now we know this would be counterproductive and potentially dangerous.
If you're reading your Pathfinder in a tent this evening, and have your pepper spray canister at your side, make sure it was wiped completely clean after its last usage. Tom's study in Alaska did not show that bears are attracted to pepper spray like they are to garbage or bait, but it surely makes you think twice about what you take to bed with you in bear country.