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Maulings Renew Old Debate Of Guns Versus Bear Spray

Charles Preston

Seven grizzlies have been shot and killed by hunters in Wyoming, since the state took over grizzly bear management. That compares to two grizzlies killed last fall.

Four grizzlies were killed in Park County alone this year, including one that Game and Fish put down, after it was shot. And, four people were injured in bear attacks. The question is how can those conflicts be reduced?

Boulder Basin Outfitter Carl Sauerwein described what happened when a grizzly mauled his guide and client this October, as they field dressed an elk south of Cody.

Sauerwein said, “Split second, that quick it was on em. And basically mauled the both of them.  Gotta hold of the client first and then Jonathon rushed in with his knife and stabbed the bear in the neck just to get it off the client. The woman had lacerations on her leg very close to the femoral artery. Jonathan when he jumped on the bear it bit his arm, broken arm, broken leg and puncture wounds in his head, neck, back, abdomen area.”

The injured hunter and guide were life-flighted to Idaho and Montana hospitals. Both survived. Wyoming’s Game and Fish says the grizzly took one of the elk’s hind quarters and left the area.

I live in grizzly country six months of the year with my husband. So, we know to watch out for grizzlies, and grizzly tracks or scat every time we go outside. I choose to carry bear spray.  Why?

Because in 1998, when we first moved to northwest Wyoming, I went to a Cody gun store to buy a “bear gun”, a .44 magnum pistol. The clerk told me he would sell me the gun, after I bought bear spray.

I asked why, and he said, “Unless you’re lucky enough to hit a bear in the top of its skull while it’s charging you, even if you shoot it in the heart and kill it, it will live long enough to kill you.”

My husband, Dr. Charles Preston, does golden eagle research in grizzly country. He’s seen the tracks in the Big Horn Basin for years.

Preston said, “It’s a firearm culture where I grew up and here in Wyoming as well. Where people are comfortable. From the time I was seven, eight years old, I learned to hunt, own, and use firearms.”

So, Preston said some people just don’t trust bear spray.

He explained, “So what I hear from a lot of people is, ‘You know, I’m comfortable with my firearm. I don’t know about this bear spray.”

But, Preston said studies show you are much safer shooting bear spray at a charging grizzly, than shooting a gun.

He said, “Bear spray is more effective in more attacks…where the person being attacked used bear spray, more than 90% of those folks escaped unscathed.”

Preston said there were a few injuries, and no fatalities when people used bear spray in those studies.

He explained guns are less effective, “Using firearms to fend off an attack, with a long gun it’s a little over 70% effective, and with a handgun its about 84% effective.”

Dan White is a bow hunter. A grizzly charged him on a hunt in 2013.

He recalled, “Somewhere around 12 or 15 yards I started spraying.  And I just saw the orange cloud come up and the bear came through the cloud and I fell back against the hillside. He was about a foot away from me and I just saw his mouth turn orange with the spray. And the things I remember how small his eyes were, and how big his teeth were, and he never touched me.”

White said the bear turned and ran,”and that bear was still running 400 yards away, full speed.”

White supported delisting, and hopes to hunt grizzlies someday.

But, he said, “Just Google BYU bear study and the data is all there. It works better and it doesn’t kill the bear and you’re must less apt to get injured with bear spray than with a firearm.”

Wyoming Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik says it’s not always so easy.

Nesvik explained, “Bear spray is not effective in high winds, or if the wind is in the direction of a hunter. We encourage folks, as this is most important, to have a tool that they’re comfortable using to defend themselves if they’re hunting, recreating, working, running cattle, or whatever they’re doing in bear country…we encourage then to carry a tool that they’re comfortable and confident in using.”

Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department, with funding from hunting groups, including a bear hunting organization, has given hunters hundreds of cans of bear spray in three years. 

Wyoming is now responsible for managing grizzlies and as a result, Nesvik said most of the seven cases of bears being shot by hunters are being investigated. If it is determined the hunter wasn’t acting in self-defense, and the bear was killed illegally, Nesvik says there can be consequences.

“Under state law, those penalties are a maximum of a $10,000 fine, up to a year in jail, and a loss of hunting and fishing privileges.”

Nesvik said the best way to reduce conflicts with grizzlies happens before the hunt.

“The things Park County have done are the reason we have recovered grizzly bears. Like the carcass removal program that the county and the game and fish has done to remove carcasses from local ranches. That’s leadership. That’s trying to prevent conflict. A lot of folks have gotten the message on good practices with food storage.

Nesvik added that hikers are bear aware as are most hunters. He said the goal is to find ways to avoid a conflict with a grizzly. The Game and Fish Department is holding meetings across the state this month and in early December on plans for grizzly bear management.

When Penny Preston came to Cody, Wyoming, in 1998, she was already an award winning broadcast journalist, with big market experience. She had anchored in Dallas, Denver, Nashville, Tulsa, and Fayetteville. She’s been a news director in Dallas and Cody, and a bureau chief in Fayetteville, AR. She’s won statewide awards for her television and radio stories in Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming. Her stories also air on CBS, NBC, NBC Today Show, and CNN network news.
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