CODY, Wyo. — Carrying a gun in bear county doesn't protect hikers any more than not using a firearm, a study released last week by Brigham Young University found.
Conducted by biologist and bear expert Tom Smith, the study found that firing a gun was no more effective in keeping people from injury or death during a bear encounter than not using a firearm.
"It really isn't about the kind of gun you carry, it's about how you carry yourself," Smith said. "We need to respect an animal that could potentially take our lives."
Smith's work emphasizes a theme that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and conservation groups in the Greater Yellowstone Area have been emphasizing for years: carry pepper spray when in grizzly bear country and know how to use it.
Smith and his team reviewed nearly 270 incidents of bear-human conflicts in Alaska involving 444 people and 357 bears, including 300 brown bears.
The results found no statistical difference in the outcome of the bear encounter when they compared those who had used a gun in an aggressive encounter (229 instances) with those who had firearms but did not use them (40 instances).
Smith said the results suggest that firearms should not be a substitute for doing the right thing to avoid unwanted encounters in bear country. Although a shooter may be able to kill an aggressive bear, he said, injuries to the shooter and others also can occur.
"We're seeing more and more people in bear country with guns," Smith said, with the incidence rising now that people are allowed to carry guns in national parks. "Yet guns, for most people, are not their best option. You don't even need a gun if you behave appropriately."
Those sentiments are echoed by bear ecologist Chuck Neal. The Wyoming resident has encountered dozens of bears in the backcountry and has been bluff-charged 15 times over the past 40 years.
Neal said he's never carried a weapon. If he had and attempted to use it, he said, the outcome of those bluff charges would have been different.
"If you act foolish, the bluff charge won't be a bluff charge, it'll be a real charge," Neal said. "The behavior is a key more than any single thing. It's what's kept me safe up until now."
The study found that using a firearm during a bear encounter requires split-second deployment and deadly accuracy. Nonlethal deterrents, like bear spray, are easier to deploy and have a wider effect.
In a 2008 study, Smith also found that bear spray effectively halted aggressive bear encounters in 92 percent of the cases. The hissing sound and sight of the expanding cloud of spray — not to mention the burning pepper juice — are often enough to frighten bears away.
"If you act appropriately and you carry bear spray, you are much better off than just blundering into bear country with a large firearm," Smith said.
Neal reported his first grizzly sighting of the year east of Yellowstone National Park on Feb. 24 up the North Fork of the Shoshone River. Four miles off the highway, he spotted a large adult male.
With the temperatures warming, Neal said, hikers should expect to encounter more bears.
"There will be more activity as this week goes by," Neal said. "They don't typically come out in a ravenous mood. If they find a carcass, they'll feed on it, but not as enthusiastically as they would in October."
Smith's co-authors on the study are Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary, Kathryn R. Johnson of the Alaska Science Center and Larsen. Cali Strong Layton, an undergrad biology student at BYU, was also a co-author.