As Montana’s general big-game hunting season opens Sunday, Oct. 23, it’s painful to note that hunters in the state have already killed at least two grizzly bears this season.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) officials are investigating one of the deaths as a possible case of self-defense. A second bear discovered by a hiker appeared to have been shot with an arrow. In a third incident, a pair of hunters near West Yellowstone shouted at a grizzly sow with cubs in an effort to make their presence known. They were successful only in startling the mother griz, who charged the hunters. One of the men shot at the bear with a .44 caliber handgun, hitting but not fatally wounding it.

These recent bear deaths add to an already disturbing trend: In 2004, grizzly bear mortality stemming from human-bear interactions in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem hit a new record of 31, including 18 females that are essential for the reproduction efforts of the threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Part of the reason these incidents are happening is because hunters and others are choosing lethal rounds over an effective defense such as bear spray.

Mark Matheny, a Bozeman hunter who was severely mauled by a female grizzly in September 1992 while bowhunting mule deer, knows a thing or two about the effectiveness of bear spray: He was saved by his hunting partner who used a four-ounce can of pepper spray to stop the attack. Though guns may seem to offer more power and protection, he says, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

“You’ve got to put a bullet the diameter of the pen you write with and try to brain this thing or break his nervous system,” says Matheny. “You’re trying to stop this bear whose heart only beats 16 beats per minute. Even if it blows its heart out, the bear can be dead on his feet and still kill you, or at least do a lot of damage before it dies.”

John Firebaugh, FWP’s regional wildlife manager in Missoula, encourages hunters to carry bear spray and hunt with a partner. Opening weekend is a time to be especially bear-aware, Firebaugh says, as the potential for conflict increases with the vast number of people in the forests.

Besides being the best for human safety, bear spray also takes bears’ lives into account. And reducing grizzly deaths is a must if they are to survive.

“You can’t tell people what to use to defend themselves, but you can definitely encourage them to make the wise choice,” says Matheny, who started his own bear pepper spray business, UDAP, after being attacked. “Wisdom is better than strength.”

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