Grizzly Right of Way

A front-page story in the Missoulian cited a hunter’s close encounter with a charging grizzly bear while he was hunting elk near Whitefish. The response of the hunter, Vic Workman, is noteworthy, because he happens to be a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner – a member of the governing body that sets policy for our state’s wildlife management.

According to Workman, the grizzly erupted out of the brush and charged him, whereupon he tried to verbally ward off the bear. When the bear kept coming, he fired a pointblank shot at the bear. Although Workman claims to have hit the bear square in the chest, the bruin passed the hunter by five feet to the side, and then ran off into the brush. Subsequent efforts to locate the bear proved fruitless.

According to the newspaper account, “bears were the last thing on Workman’s mind.” That’s unfortunate, and it’s one reason why numerous grizzly bears have been killed during the current and previous hunting seasons.

It is also contrary to the advice given to hunters by the very agency Workman supervises. Bottom line: If you’re hunting in western Montana, you need to be prepared to encounter a bear. And, according to both state and federal wildlife officials, that means that you carry bear spray.

While I am certainly not trying to second guess a hunter’s split- second response to a grizzly bear charge, it is Commissioner Workman’s public statements denigrating the use of bear spray after the incident that has me concerned.

By making inaccurate and irresponsible statements, Workman demonstrated that – in spite of FWP’s publicly available information on grizzly bear safety and bear spray – he is misinformed about the effectiveness of bear spray in stopping or deterring bear attacks.

According to studies by agency wildlife managers and independent scientists, bear spray is more effective than a gun in stopping aggressive behavior by grizzly bears. Canadian bear biologist Stephen Herrero has concluded that a person is twice as likely to incur serious injury from a charging grizzly bear when shooting bullets than when deploying bear spray.

Hunters and other forest recreationists should not only carry bear spray, but should be familiar with how to use it. Workman stated that he could never have unholstered bear spray fast enough to use it. But anyone who is familiar with the spray knows it’s actually designed to be fired right from the hip – obviating the need to unholster the canister beforehand.

One of the obstacles to recovering and delisting the threatened grizzly is the fact that we needlessly kill too many bears. Too often this happens during bear-human conflicts. While no bear deterrent is 100 percent effective – and bear spray is no substitute for being alert and prepared – it has proved to be the best method for deterring an aggressive bear and keeping people safe. Not all hunters have made the shift to bear spray, but more and more are learning that it’s more effective to spray hot pepper than lead.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a whole section of its Web site devoted to traveling safely in bear country, including two entire Web pages on the proven, safe and effective use of bear spray. Page 116 of Montana’s 2007 Deer, Elk and Antelope Regulations also implores hunters to carry bear spray and to expect to encounter one while hunting.

When one of FWP’s own commissioners makes uninformed public comments disparaging the use of bear spray, it sends a confusing message to hunters and other outdoor recreationists, and jeopardizes the safety of the animals and humans alike. Workman’s verbal “shots from the hip” undermine his own agency’s work to educate the public on how best to conserve a species struggling to recover from habitat loss and the brink of extinction.

For more information on how to travel safely in bear country, please visit the FWP Web site:

CHARLES JONKEL is president of the Missoula-based Great Bear Foundation