Want to Keep a Bear Away? Experts Say Pepper Spray Works Best

Bear spray has a 98 percent success rate during bear attacks.

The Internet has been talking a lot about U.S. Department of Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos‘ comments that schools might need guns to protect against grizzly bears. Since I’m a city-dweller who has only encountered bears while hiking on vacation, her comments sounded reasonable until I did some research on the topic.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, firearms are not the best way to respond to a bear attack. Bear spray or pepper spray work much better.

Based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, “…persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50 percent of the time,” reports a department bulletin. “During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research—a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”

Additionally, a 2012 study featured in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not,” and “bear spray [has] a better success rate under a variety of situations … than firearms.”

In fact, the publication Outside reports that bear spray has a 98 percent success rate against attacks.

Of course, these studies involved bear attacks on humans that most often occurred in the wild. It’s hard to determine how a bear would act on a school campus, in great part because so few bear attacks on campus have actually happened. According to Herreros’ Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, no attacks have ever been recorded against groups of six or more. This fact might explain why K-12 and higher ed environments, which generally have large groups of people on them, rarely experience a bear attack. I suspect the risk may actually be more pronounced when students are walking home alone.

Other wildlife, such as moose, actually do come onto rural campuses occasionally. If the animal is really agitated or posing a danger to humans, authorities might choose to tranquilize the moose or, on rare occasions, kill the animal with a firearm. That’s why some campuses might need moose protocols.

Like I said, I’m a city girl, so my experience with bears and moose is extremely limited. (I did, however, have a close encounter with a moose once when I was hiking in Yellowstone.) So, my question to all of you campus safety professionals out there in moose and bear country (and lets not forget about coyote country) is what has your experience been with wildlife coming on to campus? What responses have worked for you? What are your protocols? We want to hear from you!

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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