Saturday, March 10, 2012

Killing Bears...My Thoughts on the Tom Smith Study.

I've been at this blogging business for a good long time and an avid outdoorsman for most of my life with not inconsiderable experience in what you could call "bear country". I get a small but steady stream of email from readers with some variation of the question,"What gun do you use for bear defense?" I've not written much about bear defense, on purpose, because the genre is so over done and frankly the woods are full of people already scared witless of bears. More stories of bear encounters and DLP shootings won't do much good for those folks and my meager efforts to confront the endless stream of paranoia in the press is tantamount to useless.

It was with great interest that I read the Tom Smith study of bear attacks and his analysis of bear deterrents and firearms. The study is interesting and usually found under the headline similar to the one found here. It is worth noting that the summarized version of the article doesn't do the actual study due diligence so finding a copy of the published study is well worth the effort. I was somewhat surprised by the outcome of the study that basically showed firearms no more effective at stopping an attack than doing nothing and terribly surprised that weapon type had no statistical difference. What? Can't be. I've never been attacked by a bear but I have shot more than my fair share of critters and know more than a little about firearms performance in the field. To basically find no difference in effectiveness between handguns and long guns boggles the imagination and to find no difference in outcome between firearms and nothing but hope defies logic.

At the outset, let me say that I do agree with Mr. Smith on several points- primarily that clods roaming the woods with guns are no more safe than clods anywhere else and effective use of a gun during a bear attack is a dicey prospect at best. But, looking at the data I became pretty convinced that there are a lot of bear killings out there that Mr. Smith didn't include in his data set that would have skewed the numbers substantially. Enough so that I consider his results inconclusive at best.

For instance- of the people I know who've been involved with aggressive bears, two were reported as DLP (Defense of Life and Property) shootings. two more made no claim to the killing of a bear but I speculate they both killed a bear anyway and failed to report it. Four more had encounters with aggressive (or at least nuisance) bears during hunting activities and chose to harvest the bear and legally tag it. So out of six confirmed (and likely eight or more) aggressive bears killed, only two would show up on Mr. Smith's survey. That would certainly skew the numbers. Of the reported DLP bears, one was killed with a handgun and the other with a shotgun- so it would appear just considering those events there is no statistical difference between a long gun and a handgun when it comes to knocking off an attacking grizzly.

When you consider the four bears killed during hunting activities were all killed with rifles that would certainly skew the data heavily toward rifles being more effective but those events are labeled as normal hunting harvests, not attacks even though one event had the bear charging a successful sheep hunter as he skinned his sheep. Of course, unreported DLP kills are innumerable since they are concealed but it happens more frequently than one would think. Registering a DLP bear is a long process and the shooter loses the hide and claws to the State and is frequently (and sometimes justifiably) questioned at length about the nature of the incident. Neither of the DLP shooters I've spoke with would endure the process again and would rather take their chances just leaving the carcass lay. Not that I agree with that course of action, but compliance with the law on a DLP bear is onerous enough that many folks would simply "shoot, shovel and shut up" or tag the bear legally if they're allowed.

The data goes back a long time and previous generations didn't give bears as much credence or value as we do today. For a lot of Alaska's territorial past, bears were simply a dangerous nuisance and frequently just gunned down without fanfare, report or paperwork. Finding unsuccessful defenses in years gone by would be problematic as well, since a lone person mauled and killed in the wilderness may never be reported or found by anyone. One must assume that at least a few of the numerous adventurers from days long past who simply vanished, did so as the outcome of a bear attack. As a result, I don't think Mr. Smith counted nearly all the aggressive bears killed in the State.

So what is the intrepid woods romper to do? With all of the data pouring forth that declares carrying a firearms is a worse course of action than carrying a sharp stick and that bear spray is better than both. How does someone decide what is prudent and what is ridiculous? Suffice to say that during an assault by a large carnivore is not the appropriate time to be deciding on a course of action. As a caveat, let me state outright that I'm going to describe how I make these decisions and they may or may not be appropriate for you in any particular situation. I've had several bear encounters- all resolved without incident and all but one was considered a rare treat. But the thing to remember is that bears are large, intelligent predators and they are all individuals. What causes one to flee over the far ridge may provoke curiosity in another and may send yet another into a determined attack. The best we can do is discuss generalities and concepts- the individual bear being the unknown and determining factor.

Empty handed- I know several exceptionally savvy outdoorsmen that carry nothing in the woods except common sense. I will occasionally pursue this course of action when out in bear country. Notice the category is called "empty handed" not "empty headed". Many people travel in the wilds without a weapon at all and depend on good sense and back country knowledge to keep them out of unpleasant encounters. While it sounds out of character for me, I think those skills should be foremost in your plan whether you carry a weapon or not. Staying out of an encounter with a bear is absolutely the best case for surviving one. A weapon or deterrent is no replacement for horse sense and too many people allow a weapon to give them a false sense of bravado and security that simply doesn't exist. I'll also point out that the late Timothy Treadwell never carried a weapon and safely conducted himself foolishly close to hundreds of bears over several years until the specific, unpredictable bear entered the area. That bear is the one we all worry about.

Bear Spray- Although among firearms enthusiasts the concept of bear spray gets a bad rap, it is effective enough that I feel it warrants a place in our arsenal of tactics. Basically, for those who don't know, it is a very hot formulation of capsicum spray that is used by riot police and other personal protection products. When one considers how sensitive a bears nasal tissues are, it is pretty effective at deterring bears and within most statistical surveys comes out ahead of firearms. We've already discussed the problems with the survey but the product is a sound concept. I believe it is marvelously effective at deterring curious bears- those that enter a camp or come into contact with humans in a nuisance but non aggressive way. It is a way of convincing a nuisance bear to move on out of the area without any bloodshed.

There are several drawbacks to spray however. First is that it has a proven record of deterring bears but I'm not convinced it will stop a determined attack in progress. An adrenalized bear can withstand enormous pain and can sustain unbelievable damage and press on in it's actions. Second, the spray can be as disabling to the user as it can to the bear. I had the unpleasant experience during a training class of getting a small amount of backspray from a live canister and I would have been at a real disadvantage had a bear been in proximity. Third, and perhaps most important, is that spray doesn't leave you any sort of lethal option should it be required. A biologist crew came into contact with an aggressive bear in Denali Park a couple years ago, they sprayed the same bear twice in two incidents and upon it's third return they just shot it. Capsicum is a powerful deterrent, but what do you do if it doesn't deter?

I will utilize spray as a first option in situations where carrying a firearm is not appropriate, or to give to folks who may not be comfortable or capable with a firearm. For the out-of-state visiting, angler it is often the best choice since the logistics of buying and disposing of bear spray is a simple transaction conducted in-state and the chance of bear encounters is pretty remote.

Handguns- This is an item that I genuinely feel has limited usefulness to the backcountry traveller with regard to bears. I know that I diverge from a significant number of outdoorsfolks on this matter, but I didn't arrive at my opinion by accident. First, before someone accuses me of incompetence, I do have a substantial background with handguns and have been proficient enough in days gone by to be a state and national level competitor so I can speak with a voice of experience. And that is the rub. I've shot handguns under pressure enough and seen many hundreds of others shooting under pressure to agree with Tom Smith on this topic. Most people simply don't shoot a handgun proficiently enough under duress to depend on it in the face of a bear attack.

There is also the matter of ballistics. While I don't disagree with others that powerful handguns have enough oomph to kill a bear and it's been done enough in the past to prove it's not impossible; they certainly don't have anywhere near the power of even mild center fire rifle cartridges. Compare the ballistics of a .44 Remington Magnum to the "anemic" .30-30 Winchester and you'll see what I mean. I've also fired the newer class of high power revolver cartridges like the .500 Smith and Wesson and .454 Casull; they are a significant step up in power from the .44 Magnum but I've found them extremely difficult to shoot at any sort of range in a handgun of moderate weight. If it comes to packing a heavy revolver or a light rifle- I'll simply take the rifle. I do however think that a revolver makes a good second tier behind bear spray to give someone a lethal option where a long gun isn't appropriate but I seriously doubt the handguns ability to successfully stop aggressive bears.

Shotguns- One frequently sees shotguns touted as effective bear defense and I happen to agree with a couple caveats. First, shotguns are powerful but generally limited in range. DLP shooting for bears is a very short range affair so that's not a real handicap. Where a 3" 12 gauge stoked with buckshot at point blank range is devastatingly impressive, at 30-40 yards it may not even significantly wound a bear. That could leave you a bigger problem than you started with. Shotgun effectiveness is so ammunition dependent, you have to be aware of what you select to feed your scattergun.

The other caveat is about the design of shotguns themselves. One frequently sees a short barreled, pump shotgun recommended with some frequency for bear defense and I'm OK with that to a degree given the handiness factor but you also see a pistol grip suggested as well...I'm not so happy with that. Pistol gripped shotguns with short barrels are extremely handy but exceedingly difficult to shoot well. The beauty of a well made shotgun is the speed at which they can be accurately fired from the shoulder and the same speed that makes them effective against flushing grouse would be well used on a charging bear. I just don't think a standard length barrel and a stock makes a piece too unwieldy in the wilds. Turning a shotgun into an over sized and unwieldy pistol just doesn't seem like a great idea aside from portability.

In the same vein I view slugs much the same way- while a slug is much preferred over buckshot in hunting large game for purposes of extending range I just don't see an advantage of choosing a slug loaded shotgun over a proper rifle when it comes to defensively killing a bear. Shotgun slugs also tend to be very soft and while they may punch through a deer, flattening and failing to fully penetrate something the size of a bear is possible. In the post mortem of the Treadwell bear, it's been reported a Trooper's slug was stopped by the upper jaw below the eye socket and failed to penetrate the cerebral cavity. Choosing a hard slug like the Brenneke is quite important. Turning a shotgun into a short range rifle just seems out of place as compared to actually just carrying a rifle unless one is doing some activity that requires a shotgun anyway. Two duck hunters this past fall had a run in with a grizzly and managed to kill it with a dozen rounds of heavy steel waterfowl loads. After corresponding with one of the hunters, he reports a couple of heavy buckshot rounds will find its way into his pockets on future trips.

The Rifle- I'll divulge my bias from the outset. I am a rifleman and my field preference will almost invariably resort to rifles when something absolutely has to die in the most expedient way possible. I firmly believe the high powered rifle is responsible for killing more aggressive bears than anything else as we discussed earlier. When I'm big game hunting I generally carry a light rifle in the .300 magnum class and while many may say that it's not ideal for hunting bears, I'm comfortable with it for defensive purposes when loaded with good bullets that won't explode on impact. Examples are the Nosler Partition and the much vaunted Barnes TSX that will withstand high speed impact and continue to penetrate deeply through large animals. I usually have a few of these in my kit that I'll load into the magazine after I've killed an animal and start the packing process. The .338 Winchester Magnum was introduced to the world in the Model 70 'Alaskan' and widely advertised as the ideal all-around rifle for the bear country hunter. For bear hunting I believe that a wide number of cartridges are perfectly suitable but there is a big difference in shooting an undisturbed bear from distance and trying to stop an angry one at close range.

I frequently carry a heavier rifle when I'm not hunting the alpine or when I'm simply hiking and won't need to make longer shots. I've got to report that a rifle in the .375 class is extremely comforting when you encounter fresh grizzly tracks. For defensive purposes an open sighted carbine is about ideal. My sample is one of the popular Ruger Alaskans firing the .375 Ruger cartridge. The ballistics of such cartridges have a very long history of effectively stopping large game at close range and in the words of one writer, "It's doesn't just kill numbs them."  When one surveys the Alaska guides that hunt bears, the various .375s, the .416s, .458s and such are pretty standard fare. One legendary Kodiak guide even carried a double .500 Nitro! While that may be required for folks who vocationally deal with wounded bears at rock throwing distances it should say something of it's requirements and gives the savvy outdoorsmen a place to start.

The Alaskan and many similar competing rifles are suitable for the task right out of the box. While many hunters choosing it to hunt with will add a scope, for defensive use they come with good express sights as standard equipment and I was effective with mine to around 100 yards. Far enough for most moose hunting and much further than a defensive shooting could be justified. I've added one of the excellent NECG aperture sights to my rifle- it gives me somewhat longer range for hunting use and no detriment to speed for a defensive shot at close range. Aperture sighted rifles used to be the backbone of the hunter's arsenal and while its almost universally a scope sighted world today- the aperture rifle has much to recommend it.

So there are some thoughts about hunting and travelling in bear country and while I disagree with the study's data and some of it's conclusion, there are some points Mr. Smith makes that I think  are very valid. First, if you're going to travel in bear country, what fills your head is vastly more important than what fills your hands. Second, even though non-lethal options are effective don't discount the need for a lethal means of stopping a bear attack. Third, if you do choose a lethal means then equipment and proficiency matter greatly so carefully selecting your equipment and then developing the required proficiency is vital to your survival. So at this point I've written more than I have in the entire history of my blog combined about bear attack and defending yourself in one but I'd like to leave the reader with a final thought. Reading about bear attacks and thinking about those situations and imaging yourself in one are appealing to the Walter Mitty in all of us, but it is really quite rare to have encounters with aggressive bears.

While not as dramatic, it is the more mundane things like drowning, falling and hypothermia that really wait out there in the Bush ready to kill us at every opportunity. Prepare accordingly and stay safe.


Anonymous said...

After reading Tom Smith's study, I landed here while looking for further information on the issue of guns and bears. I appreciate the well rounded insight presented in the article.

Duane Stone Horse said...

For the bear spray study, more than 80% of the time people were just spraying curious bears or bears making a slow approach while looking for food. Less than 20% of the people used bear spray against a charging bear. For the firearms study, we don't know what the situation was. For the bear spray study (Efficacy of bear deterrent spray in Alaska) we know that about 40% of the people worked for state or federal agencies--they had bear spray training, and may have been seasoned biologists who had far more experience with bears than a typical hiker or hunter. For the firearms study, we don't know. The sample size for bear spray was tiny--only 72 cases for Alaska. For guns, Tom Smith had a huge pool of incidents to chose from. There have been more than 4,000 bears killed in defense of life and property alone. Did Smith pick a representative sample, or did he tend to cherry pick incidents when guns failed. We don't know.

Theresa said...
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Trish B. said...

This morning I read the March 2013 issue of Backpacker which includes more information coming from biologist Tom Smith. I was looking for clear headed thinking that might offer alternate or supplemental opinions. I appreciate the information presented here. While my husband has invested time to train with handguns and rifles, I have not. He will continue to carry a gun and I will carry bear spray in the wilderness. I am glad to say we have had numerous encounters with Black Bears in the Northwest without any aggression on either side. I suspect that this is a more common experience, particularly for non hunters. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

The bears (or cougars) you really have to worry about are the predatory ones. I would suspect a large part of the minuscule number of bear fatalities (if not attacks) are by predatory bears. Predatory animals, not that I've ever experienced it or 99.999% of people ever will, stalk you in the same way a hunter stalks an animal. A gun isn't going to do you any good when the bear hides in the bushes and jumps out at you from 3m away.

hodgeman said...

Anon- I've interviewed a couple of people who were stalked by black bears and you're right, nothing helps when the bear bursts from the bushes at bayonet range.

The most common scenario I've heard is when folks stumble onto a bear defending a kill. It sure pays to keep your eyes open when you're out and about.