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Avid hunters the nation over will tell you that one fear is paramount to all others when it comes to the threats of the backcountry:  Aggressive bears encroaching on your space.

The mere thought of being stalked, or, worse yet, charged by a bear of any species or size is enough to give even the most hardened outdoorsmen the heebie-jeebies.  These majestic yet terrifying creatures are certainly the apex predators of North America, and a hairless bipedal primate often appears as a threat and a tasty snack to the larger varieties of bear.

Hunters in bear-rich areas have long speculated about how best to prevent and respond to bear attacks while conducting their conservatory business, leading to a great debate:  Is bear-specific pepper spray a better deterrent than packing a powerful pistol or long gun?

The folks over at have laid out a fairly solid argument on the subject.

“For most of the 20th century, biologists and hunting guides (and magazines) recommended firearms for self-defense from carnivorous mammals. But in 2012, the Journal of Wildlife Management published a groundbreaking paper, ‘Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.’

“Co-authors Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero analyzed public records, media accounts, and anecdotal information reaching back to 1883. The study examined 269 encounters between 357 bears (brown, black, and polar) and 444 humans, and concluded that people who used firearms for self-defense against bears ‘suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not.’”

This is shocking to many of us, who have ben led to believe that the sound of a firearm alone is enough to send many bears packing.  In fact, in civilian circles, there is a saying for bear encounters:  If the bear is black, shout back.  If the bear is brown, lay down.  This implies that black bears will often cower from humans, while the larger, brown bears, (Grizzlies and Kodiaks, for example), will attack with the hope of incapacitating the target.  The “lay down” method is to literally play dead in hopes that the bear will move on once they believe the threat has been neutralized.

So, what are hunters to do if firearms aren’t exactly effective?

“Now widely cited by backcountry-area risk managers, wildlife biologists, and bear experts, the study further concluded that bear spray has a better success rate than firearms at neutralizing a bear encounter, and that spray is also less likely than firearms to cause collateral damage to humans or other animals.

“Aerosol spray is allowed in every backcountry area in the United States. It’s easy to buy, nontoxic, simple to use, and—because it contains capsaicin, a chili pepper–based chemical that causes intense irritation but no serious physical injury—can be deployed against any threat, including aggressive dogs and human attackers.”

One thing that the article suggests as well, which may not be immediately apparent, is the need for practice with the bear mace canister.  Collateral damage to humans can occur due to misuse, swirling winds, or panic.  Experts suggest buying a large enough canister to conduct a few practice sprays before venturing into the wild.

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