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Mike Godfrey, At Home in Wild Spaces

Utah bear expert weighs in after Montana man's grizzly attack goes viral

By Mike Godfrey, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Oct. 4, 2016 at 11:55 a.m.


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Editor's Note: The hyperlinked video below includes language and graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.BOZEMAN, Montana — A bear attack. For many people, it is one of their worst fears. But for Todd Orr of Bozeman, Montana, it became reality — twice. Surviving his ordeal, he documented his experience, sharing his story and his injuries in a video on social media.

Sunday morning, Todd Orr was “scouting for elk” in southwestern Montana when, according to his account on his Facebook page, he spotted a sow grizzly with two cubs an estimated 80 yards from his position.

According to Orr, the mother grizzly “saw (him) right away” and then responded by running a short distance up the trail. Orr hoped that would be the end of their encounter. It wasn’t.

The mother bear turned suddenly and charged.

“Within a couple seconds, she was nearly on me,” he recounted. He said he discharged his bear spray an estimated 25 feet from the charging grizzly, later stating, “Her momentum carried her right through the orange mist and (onto) me.”

Falling face down to the ground, Orr said he then wrapped his arms around his neck and head to protect vital areas while enduring clawing and bites which he compared to “a sledge hammer with teeth,” all while doing his best to stay still and avoid agitating the bear further.

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“After a couple minutes” which to him “seemed an eternity,” the bear in Orr’s words “disappeared.”

Bloodied and “stunned” but feeling lucky to be alive, Orr assessed his injuries, concluding he was still fit enough to walk to his truck 3 miles away. Wanting “to put some distance between us,” he continued down the trail for “five to ten minutes” before hearing a sound behind him, and turned to see the grizzly “bearing down” from what he estimated to be 30 feet.

Just minutes after the fist attack, Orr again found himself face down, using his arms to protect his head and neck, worrying he might not survive a second mauling. He again recounted the pain of each bite, this time reaching bone and causing is forearm and hand to “go numb” and “limp,” according to his Facebook page.

The bear then stopped and stood on his chest and head for a time, before apparently wandering some distance away, allowing him to reach for his firearm that had been torn away during the second mauling. Upon reaching his gun, Orr looked up, discovering the bear had again disappeared.

“Double lucky” to have emerged from the second attack with non life-threatening injuries, Orr picked himself up and said he “half jogged” back to his truck where he used his phone to take a number of videos and photos, documenting his injuries and recording some brief thoughts.

He was then fortunate to make contact with a rancher who stayed with him while he contacted emergency responders and his girlfriend.

Orr’s story raises a number of questions, like why did the bear attack him? Why didn’t the bear spray stop the attack? And what can we learn about bear safety from his story?

Dr. Tom Smith, a local wildlife biologist, author and co-author of a number of landmark publications and studies examining bear attacks and effective deterrents weighed in on the questions.

“Bear attacks are so rare, but they capture our imagination," Smith said. "Most people can hike their whole life and never see a grizzly. As far as Mr. Orr is concerned, you really have to feel for the guy.”

Why didn’t the bear spray work? Is bear spray a reliable deterrent?

According to Smith, “…Without a video of the attack, it’s impossible to really say, but when a bear is hit square in the face, it overrides attitude and induces involuntary spasms, pain and disorientation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a really mad bear.”

In the case of Orr’s ordeal, Smith said, “My hunch is that there wasn’t a sufficient deposit. (The) vast majority of evidence suggest that (bear spray) works very well, (and Orr’s story) should not undermine confidence in bear spray.”

How effective is “very effective” and which is the best deterrent? Bear spray or firearm?

“The number one thing to remember is that you have no business in bear country without a deterrent,” Smith said. “You should never ride in a car without a seat belt, even if you haven’t been in an accident in 40 years. A deterrent is your seat belt in bear country.”

While it is true that most bears are inherently cautious and will do their best to stay clear of humans, it only takes one bear that has learned to associate humans with food, gets startled, is protective of cubs or is just too curious to present people with a potentially dangerous situation.

That is precisely why having a deterrent and knowing how to use it properly should be a priority for anyone who spends time in bear country.

Is it better to use a gun or bear spray during an attack?

Smith and his work further advise that unless you have a loaded gun in your hands with the safety off and a bullet in the chamber, bear spray is the better deterrent. This conclusion has been further supported by a number of independent examinations of Smith's research, including an article published by the popular hunting magazine Sports Afield.

According to Smith, bear spray has a 93 percent success rate (defined as altering an aggressive bear's behavior). Of 197 people involved in 75 incidents, only 2 percent sustained “slight” injuries (all caused by grizzlies.) 98 percent were uninjured.

Compare that with the 75 percent firearm success rate (altering an aggressive bear’s behavior) involving 444 individuals, resulting in 17 fatalities and 35 severe injuries.

When asked what might account for the difference, Smith suggests there are a number of problems inherent with using guns as bear deterrents.

“Defending yourself (from a charging bear) is not the same as shooting at paper targets,” he said.

Bear attacks usually happen with very little warning where seconds can make a difference. If you do manage to fire your weapon in time, then the “bullet(s) have to count,” Smith said. The truth is that guns are not "made for quick deployment," nor are they necessarily meant for bear protection.

Beyond a significantly higher success rate, there are other benefits to a non-lethal deterrent like bear spray for both humans and bears. The first is prevention of unnecessary loss of life or a serious gun-related injury. This doesn’t only protect bears, but people as well. There have been a number of incidents where hostile bear encounters were compounded by gun-related injuries and even death.

Still, Smith stresses that if a bear charges you and you already have a gun in your hand ready to fire, then he’d, “Use the gun.“

Ultimately, your first goal should be to avoid a dangerous situation in the first place. When traveling in bear country, it is best to travel in groups and “make noise appropriately” Smith said.

“Bears don’t grow old by being careless,” he said. Bears are predators, and will evaluate risk. “In bear world, numbers matter.” Being alone places you at additional risk. Travel in groups and in areas of poor visibility, make noise such as clapping.

How should I react in a bear attack?

If a bear charges you, do not run— stand your ground. This can be difficult. Your body may instinctually want to run, but doing so can be disastrous. Running away very often incite bears or other predators to chase and attack. Standing your ground sends the message that you are not submissive, and therefore a potential risk.

Smith said that while some larger groups have been mauled or attacked, he stresses that in all cases people attempted to flee. He states further that he is not aware of any “instance where two people stood their ground and the bear touched them.”

If a bear (specifically a grizzly) does make contact after you’ve deployed your deterrent and knocks you to the ground, then is the time to lie face down and stay face down, protecting your neck and head with your arms. If attacked by a black bear after using your deterrent, fight back and get back to your feet.

It’s not a bad idea to practice your response before heading into the backcountry. Know how to respond if you find yourself in a dangerous situation.

“Bears have no hierarchy of yes’s and no’s when attacking,” Smith said.

Know beforehand how you will respond in a bear attack.

Hunters should particularly take note of these safety tips as the practices of blending into the environment, masking your scent, traveling and waiting in solitude, and even calling in prey animals place you at the greatest risk of bear attacks.

As stated before, attacks are extremely rare, but always cast under a microscope in our modern world of social media. Bears are majestic and valuable citizens of our public lands, but they are also wild animals deserving of respect. Make sure to spend time educating and preparing yourself, and stay safe when outdoors.


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About the Author: Mike Godfrey \------------------------------

Mike Godfrey is a graduate of BYU and along with his wife Michelle, the manager of At Home in Wild Spaces, an outdoor recreation website, blog and community, dedicated to sharing national parks, wilderness areas, hiking/biking trails, and more.

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