A Grizzly Controversy 

New product stirs debate about staying safe in bear country

An old Indian saying offers insight into what campers might need to know about hiking in bear country: An eagle can see a pine needle fall, an elk can hear it fall and a bear can smell it fall.

"It's one of my favorite sayings," says Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of the Center for Wildlife Information. "It tells us how attuned the bear is to its surroundings."

With that in mind, backpackers might think twice about using lip gloss, bug spray, hand lotion or any other particularly odoriferous product when hiking and camping in bear country. Careful campers already know the basic rules of cooking away from the tent and hanging food high in a tree in order to avoid a grisly confrontation.

Now a manufacturer of a new bear pepper spray claims that the canister backpackers often carry to save their lives may actually place them at risk.

A Missoula manufacturer claims that the bear spray some campers carry to save their lives may actually place them at risk. But others say that sounds like scare-tactic marketing.


"I would argue that pepper spray is probably one of the most attractive compounds to bears," says Cody Dwire, a chemist at ChemArmor, Inc., the Missoula-based manufacturer of Bear Pause pepper spray. "People spray it and basically reward the bear with taco sauce."

Dwire says that the food-grade chemical called oleoresin capsicum, which is contained in other brands of bear pepper sprays, may attract bears if used accidentally because it smells like food. Capsicum is the oil of a pepper that, if sprayed in a bear's face, irritates the eyes and nose, and if the bear breathes it in, burns the throat and lungs.

"If you spill pepper spray on your shirt, you may be unaware that you have a problem," Dwire says. "You are four days out in the Bob Marshall and you've got something on your shirt that would need a washing machine to get out."

Dwire says he is trying to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to require a label, "Residues May Attract Bears," on spray cans. Bear Pause does not need a label, Dwire says, because it contains pharmaceutical-grade capsicum, a substance that does not attract bears because it doesn't contain the oils, waxes, vitamins and minerals found in the food-grade oleoresin.

Dwire admits that only preliminary tests have been conducted on Bear Pause, but he says more extensive testing will be done this summer.

The tests that Dwire cites to prove that other pepper sprays can attract bears include a study conducted by Tom Smith, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife research ecologist in Alaska. Smith sprayed bear spray on gravel along a river in Katmai National Park in Alaska and found that brown bears seemed to be attracted to the area. The bears responded by sniffing, pawing, licking and rubbing their heads in the soil.

Smith asserts, however, that his tests only confirm that bear spray is not a repellent, and therefore should not be sprayed on jackets, tents or around the campsite. He adds that people need to be careful with bear spray, just like they need to be careful with food.

And Smith does not agree with Dwire that the EPA should require a label warning buyers that the spray may attract bears. With that logic, everything from peanut butter to lip gloss should be labeled the same way, he says.

"I was targeting people who might use it as a passive repellent," Smith says of his preliminary tests. "It was not intended to trigger controversy. Basically, the struggle is if a company can say our pepper spray doesn't attract and all these others do."

The controversy has clouded the real issue at hand, Smith says. "Squabbles between manufacturers keep the issue focused on an obscure part of the problem," he says. "Pepper spray is, in fact, a very useful tool. The issue is really one of misuse."

Misuse ranges from people intentionally using bear spray on their gear as a repellent to hikers simply testing the spray canister at their campsite. Bear spray should only be used in bear country to deter bears that are attacking or appear likely to attack people. Any testing of the spray canister should be done at home before a long hike.

Tim Eicher, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that pepper spray, when used properly, is 95 percent effective in stopping a threatening bear.

"It's very effective," Eicher says. "From the investigations I've done with people involved in self-defense shootings, the odds that you are going to stop a bear and not be attacked are 50-50 at best. Bear spray is much more effective."

No biologist or bear expert suggests using the spray passively, because bears can be attracted to unusual odors.

"Anything improperly used that is not normally found in bear habitat can become an attractant to bears," says Bartlebaugh. "Bears continually work the ground over smelling and testing anything. When we talk about attractants, we could include snowmobile seats, kerosene and transmission fluid."

Bartlebaugh adds, however, that bear pepper spray has been used for more than 15 years without one report of the spray attracting bears. The issue revolves around a marketing scheme, he says, which includes manufacturers using pictures of aggressive-looking bears or victims of bear maulings to promote the use of their product.

But bear experts and biologists both want people to be safe in bear country, which includes being smart with all gear including bear spray. As Bartlebaugh succinctly puts it, "One of the most important things with bear spray is that it is not a replacement for brains."

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