Bear problem? Guns won't make you safer, study shows

Bear problem? Guns won't make you safer, study shows


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PROVO — Conventional wisdom isn't always based on common sense, and sometimes isn't even based on real data — especially when it comes to animals of mythological proportions like bears. BYU wildlife biologist Tom Smith wants to change that.

A new study suggests that one of the most commonly cited deterrents against bears in the wild — guns — actually won't protect you any better than having no weapon at all.

"It really isn't about the kind of gun you carry, it's about how you carry yourself," said Smith. "We need to respect an animal that could potentially take our lives."

Smith, who has studied bears in the field since the early '90s, has heard his share of stories about how to deter a bear attack — anything from putting your hands above your head to shooting blanks from a shotgun, none of which actually work very well and some of which are actually dangerous.

"It was clear a lot of the practices that we had were not thought out or based on science," Smith said, speaking of his time studying in Alaska.

Bear spray is more effective than guns in both deterring attacks, protecting humans, and saving bears lives, according to several studies by BYU professor Tom Smith.
Bear spray is more effective than guns in both deterring attacks, protecting humans, and saving bears lives, according to several studies by BYU professor Tom Smith. (Photo: Courtesy of BYU)

Books, as well as a lot of passed-down lore, suggest that guns can scare off a bear, or stop a bear in the middle of a charge. Some suggest loading a shotgun with blanks as well as live rounds. Some advocate a rifle rather than a shotgun. But none of them had any data to back up the claim.

So Smith got some. He and his colleagues looked at 269 incidents involving humans and bears in Alaska and divided them out in terms of who used a gun, and who had a gun but didn't use it. They found that there was no statistical difference in terms of injury or death between those who used their gun (229) and those who didn't (40).

"We're seeing more and more people in bear country with guns," Smith said. "Yet guns, for most people, are not their best option. You don't even need a gun if you behave appropriately."

This isn't the first time Smith has had a study showing that guns aren't as effective against bears as generally believed. In 2008, Smith released a study saying that bear spray is more effective than guns.

How to avoid an attack
  • hike in groups
  • avoid areas of poor visibility
  • make noise as appropriate
  • avoid startling mothers with cubs
  • be more cautious in brown bear country
  • Part of the problem is that shooting accurately is very difficult in a terrifying situation like having a giant animal charging at you. Even if you do kill the bear, that's still a problem, given declining populations and the the loss of what a bear can contribute both economically and ecologically.

    "It's a conservation issue in that we'll see needless bear mortalities," Smith said.

    His studies, taken together, show that non-lethal deterrents like bear spray are actually safer for humans and bears, as well as more effective. He calls the situation a two-sided coin.

    "On one side, human safety is a huge issue. On the other, we're having bears blown away for no good reason."

    Smith suggested that taking the appropriate precautions and carrying yourself in the right way are the most important things. He compared it to putting on your seat belt when driving — there is no "best" way to be ejected from your car in an accident. The best thing is to be prepared to begin with.

    "There is nothing in this study to contradict common sense," he said.

    Smith is an associate professor of Plant & Wildlife Sciences at BYU, and conducted the study with Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary, Kathryn R. Johnson of the Alaska Science Center, and Cali Strong Layton, an undergraduate at BYU, also a co-author. It will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

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    David Self Newlin

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