Going light is the rage among backpackers and hunters. Enthusiasts will eagerly spend extra money for products that shave pounds or even ounces off the weight of packs, tents, pads and nearly everything else they carry in the backcountry.
But should weight-savers skimp on bear spray in grizzly country?
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, meeting in Missoula on Tuesday, officially backed off the minimum recommendations it’s listed for years for bear spray products.
With competing companies jockeying for market position and one represented by a lawyer at the meeting, the scientists rescinded a recommendation for carrying a bear spray canister that dispenses for at least 6 seconds.
UDAP, a bear spray marketer based in Butte, had filed legal action claiming the interagency group had no grounds to say one spray duration was better than another.
Another Montana-based bear spray company, Counter Assault, advertises its cans as meeting “recommendations suggested by bear biologists and wildlife specialists of the IGBC” for lasting 7.2 to 9.2 seconds.
UDAP has canisters that spray for 4, 5.4 and 7 seconds. All products labeled “bear spray” and registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must include at least 7.9 ounces of product.
Scott Jackson, a U.S. Forest Service representative to the IGBC, said the committee wanted to encourage people using bear spray safely but did not want to make product endorsements. According to the Missoulian, he recommended the committee limit its advice to using sprays registered by the EPA.
The EPA reviews bear spray as a pesticide and inspects products for the amount of active ingredient, spray distance and cloud size. But the agency doesn’t give guidance on how long the spray should last.
Helping the public avoid conflicts with bears is within the realm of the IGBC, which was formed in 1983 to help ensure recovery of grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the lower 48 states. The group works to coordinate policy, management and research among state and federal agencies in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Canada.
Backing off the 6-second minimum leaves some field experts conflicted.
“When you have a female with cubs, they might bluff-charge two or three times,” said Jamie Jonkel, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager. “You want a few extra shots in one can.”
UDAP representatives had made a presentation at the June 23 IGBC meeting in Bonners Ferry and asked the group to withdraw the 6-second spray duration recommendation.
“UDAP contended the recommendation was not supported by science, is arbitrary (and) misguided,” said Wayne Kasworm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly specialist in Libby. “At that time, UDAP asked IGBC to refrain from endorsing or promoting one bear spray product over another.”
Committee members reviewing the bear spray product issues reported in Missoula that they were concerned about possible marketing of small “palm-sized” canisters that might deter dogs or muggers but aren’t large enough to faze a charging grizzly, the Missoulian reported.
UDAP markets small canisters labeled “pepper spray” for “runners and hikers” that could be mistaken by the public as meeting the EPA requirements for “bear spray.”
Bear spray does not incapacitate a bear the way tear gas affects a person. Instead, it degrades the bear’s senses of smell, sight and hearing enough to discourage the attack.
The irritating ingredient, capsicum, is mixed with vegetable oil in the spray. It can have a reverse effect of attracting bears if sprayed prophylactically on tents or other gear as though it were a bear repellent.
“No method of bear deterrent is 100 percent effective,” Jackson said. “We encourage people to carry bear spray and know how to use it. But products perform differently.”
Other experts have gone further in endorsing minimum standards for bear spray.
In 2008, when the original IGBC bear spray recommendations for at least 7 seconds of duration and 25 feet of distance were being challenged and reduced to 6 seconds, National Park Service carnivore biologist John Waller wrote the committee.
“Glacier National Park provides bear pepper spray to its staff and encourages hikers to carry this product as well,” he said, noting that he believed use of bear spray had prevented attacks and likely even fatalities in the park.
“I believe the current IGBC guidelines are appropriate. While we cannot foresee all circumstances in which bear spray may be used, it is likely that the product may need to be used against multiple animals – bears often travel in family groups – or used repeatedly against a single animal (since) initial deployment may be adversely affected by wind, rain or vegetation.
“The IGBC minimum recommended spray duration of 6 seconds would supply three 2-second bursts. I can guarantee that if charged repeatedly by an angry grizzly bear, this will seem a minimum indeed. Anything less would truly be insufficient.
“Similarly, a minimum spray distance standard of 25 feet is not excessive for an animal that can charge at 44 feet per second.
“I cannot think of a reason for reducing these standards. Why would we want a less effective defensive product?”
Mark Matheny, founder of UDAP Industries, said the IGBC recommendations had favored Counter Assault products without any scientific evidence to suggest that longer duration of spray is important in deterring a bear attack.
Matheny, who founded UDAP in 1994 – two years after surviving a grizzly attack while bowhunting –said the volume of spray coming out of the canister is more important than duration.
“As a grizzly bear attack survivor, I believe that in a bear attack you want to have a high volume spray,” Matheny said Thursday.
“Studies show that in most cases you have less than 2 seconds to react before the bear reaches you. It’s not a matter of how long the can sprays in a constant duration.
“Bear spray is designed to be deployed in repeated bursts of spray. It’s more about being prepared and knowing how to operate your spray and following the manufacturer’s instructions on the label.”
UDAP general manager Tim Lynch said the company won’t change the nozzle on its canister to gain a few more seconds.
“We have 23 years of testimonials that our products work,” he said.
Chuck Bartlebaugh of the Missoula-based Be Bear Aware campaign, said the minimum of 6 seconds duration and 25 feet distance stemmed from bear spray research in controlled situations done in Montana in the early 1980s by a team led by wildlife biologist Carrie Hunt with Charles Jonkel.
“I helped test the bear spray she came up with,” Bartlebaugh said. “Duration is important in variable field conditions.”
Asked whether more volume was more important than more duration, he said, “With a wider nozzle to put out more spray, all you’re doing is wasting some of the bear spray to the right or left of the bear and using up your reserves faster.”
Bartlebaugh agreed that the public needs more education on effective use of bear spray.
“The information is being refined as we analyze more case studies,” he said, noting that there’s no way to perfectly duplicate a bear attack in a research situation.
Tim Rubbert, a Kalispell bear expert who’s used bear spray successfully twice to thwart grizzly attacks, disagrees with Matheny’s position that “having a high volume and more powerful spray in the short time you have to use bear spray” is more important than having a canister with more duration.
“I stand by the (IGBC’s) original recommendations,” Rubbert said, “because I’ve had to use bear spray and I recognize how important spray time is.”
Rubbert, 65, used bear spray to interrupt a grizzly attack on his hiking partner in Glacier Park in 1993. He said he’s hiked 43,000 miles in bear country and immersed himself in bear education. He leads grizzly interpretive hikes and has written two books, “Hiking Safely in Grizzly Country” and “Hiking with Grizzlies: Lessons Learned.”
“My hiking partner, Jim Cole, and I made mistakes the day he was mauled,” Rubbert acknowledged. “We weren’t making enough noise and we were separated. I was just catching up when the bear attacked him.”
The surprised grizzly went for Cole’s head and had nearly scalped him when Rubbert deployed a burst of spray from 40 feet.
“The bear looked up and charged me,” he said. “I put my thumb down on the trigger as he charged into the spray.”
A couple of heartbeats later, the spray cloud deterred the charge.
“The bear stopped just 5 feet away,” Rubbert said. “I thank God the spray went out 30 feet and the spray time was long enough. I had only a little bit left when the bear turned away.”
Since then, Rubbert carries two canisters on his hiking belt, noting that he had 10.5 miles to walk out of the backcountry after his friend was attacked.
“I keep the Counter Assault 10.3-ounce can ready to go go,” he said.
“I work hard to prevent being in another situation requiring the use of bear spray,” he said. “Things happen really quick.”
Rubbert said he’s lost respect for the IGBC for backing off recommendations.
“When a grizzly is coming – trust me – you don’t want to run out of bear spray,” he said.
“The product I use has proved to me twice that it works. I’m sticking with it.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.