If attacked, should you punch a grizzly bear in the nose? And better ideas

A large grizzly bear at Yellowstone National Park Sept. 3. An expert has analyzed dozens of bear attacks to learn the best defense strategies. (Mike Godfrey, At Home in Wild Spaces)

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — If you're attacked by a bear, what should you do? Is "hitting the bear on the nose" solid advice or a dangerous folktale?

Targeting vulnerable areas like the eyes, throat and nose is a basic tenant of self-defense. There's no doubt, a bear's nose is extremely sensitive — at least to smell. But does that sensitivity to smell suggest targeting a bear's nose during an attack?

Today, we'll examine lessons from the attack that severely wounded Rudy Noorlander in early September. While helping two hunters locate a deer they wounded the night before, Noorlander encountered a "small" grizzly, and then a "mega grizzly," which he estimated was 10 feet tall, guarding a deer carcass.

With his rifle drawn, he attempted to shoot the grizzly when it charged, but his gun misfired. That's when, according to Noorlander's daughter, he decided to punch the bear in the nose. The grizzly responded by grabbing the man's head and shaking him so violently that his jaw was torn off. "Jaw, teeth, everything. There's nothing there," Noorlander's sister told MTN News in September.

Hearing his screams, the two hunters came to his aid. Though armed, they feared accidentally shooting Noorlander and began yelling and throwing rocks at the bear, which then retreated.

Noorlander was flown to a hospital in Montana for immediate trauma care prior to being transferred to the University of Utah Hospital where he's undergone additional surgeries.

The family has set up a GoFundMe* account to help with medical bills.

Lifesaving lessons

Wildlife experts broadly advise fighting back "with everything you've have," if you're attacked by a black bear. This includes advice to punch and kick the bear's nose and face. But Noorlander didn't encounter a black bear. He encountered a "mega grizzly" and that fundamentally changes the equation.

Tom Smith, wildlife biologist and global authority on bear management, has dedicated much of his more than 30-year career to the study of bear attacks, including what strategies work and what does not.

He has lent his expertise to the analysis of other attacks, including a similar but hazardously sensationalized clash between two college students and a grizzly bear in 2022. The lessons of that attack apply to Noorlander's experience, as well. Watch this video for a complete analysis:

Smith has documented 89 instances of people punching grizzlies. In three of those, the bear stopped "aggressive action," but by far, the most likely response has been greater aggression, ranging from a paw swat, to biting, dragging the victim off, or rigorously shaking or tossing the victim. Greater aggression from the bear was the situation for both Noorlander and the college students.

Bears, like people, have different personalities and motivations, and are much more invested while protecting young or a food cache. Grizzlies, in particular, will aggressively defend a carcass.

In addition to their vastly superior strength, grizzlies also employ a brutal arsenal of weaponry. And when they fight, they go for the head, face and neck. "That's how they fight each other, and that's how they fight humans," warns Smith.

Choosing to punch a grizzly, he said, even after "all other avenues have been exhausted, is nearly always a bad idea."

"Don't get in a fistfight with a (grizzly) bear! … (You) will lose," Smith said.

Rudy's recovery

If a grizzly makes contact, playing dead is a far more effective strategy when deterrents like bear spray are no longer an option.

"You can be aggressive toward a grizzly (scream, throw rocks, fire warning shots, etc) but you'd better be able to back that up with either bear spray or lethal force. Otherwise, they'll call your bluff," Smith says.

We can only speculate as to how Noorlander's story might have differed had his gun fired. "One second" between seeing the bear and being attacked doesn't allow much time for anything. Had he managed to get a shot off, the bullet would need to hit the bear's vitals to do much good. And even for an accomplished marksman, that's a very difficult target to hit when a bear is charging at you from short range.

The right gun in the right hands can be a very effective tool, according to Smith. "They've saved lives."

But, he said, "Personally, were I stalking in on a carcass, I'd have bear spray in my hand with the safety off ready to go."

When tracking a wounded animal, especially one that has been out overnight, Smith adds that's when the "odds of meeting a bear are much greater than anywhere else on the landscape."

It's not at all surprising that Noorlander encountered multiple grizzlies. A deer carcass is a beacon for predators, and a "mega grizzly" will quickly push other claimants off the kill, claim the carcass and aggressively defend it.

In the end, defend yourself by targeting a bear's nose, eyes, throat, lungs and more — just not with your fists.

Bear spray has proven to be an extremely effective deterrent, capable of blinding and incapacitating even very large grizzlies, when used correctly. It doesn't need to be as accurate as bullets, and can be deployed quickly — if it is accessible.

Noorlander was reportedly carrying bear spray — but it was in his backpack. This is a common theme among bear-attack victims. To be of any value, deterrents must be immediately accessible, Smith said. An inaccessible deterrent is the same as no deterrent.

Carry bear spray on your hip, chest, in your front pocket or in your hand, especially when tracking wounded game, or moving through heavy cover.

Invest some well-spent time learning from past attacks by watching the included video for more critical guidance on how to avoid being attacked, and what to do if you are unable to deploy your deterrent during a bear attack.


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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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