Grizzly Attacks: Spray or Shoot?

An unprecedented number of grizzly bear encounters and attacks occurring in Montana during this year’s hunting seasons has sparked renewed controversy over whether hunters are justified in shooting and killing animals in potentially life-threatening situations.

In recent months, Newshounders have read about the Montana elk hunter who shot and killed a charging grizzly sow at eight yards with a single, well-placed shot from his .30-06 rifle.

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In separate additional incidents this fall, grizzlies attacked a bowhunter and a pheasant hunter in Montana. There were also numerous reports of hunters who encountered grizzly bears while attempting to track and retrieve their kills.

An incident taking place last week in which yet another Montana hunter shot an attacking grizzly has prompted a vociferous response from some grizzly protectionists as well as from some federal and state game agency personnel.

That’s because the hunter, a member of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, is not what one would call a proponent of bear sprays and chemical deterrents. In fact, FWP Commissioner Vic Workman doesn’t mince words when asked what he thinks about the effectiveness of pepper spray versus bullets for aggressive grizzlies.

“These people who think that they’re safe with bear spray, I’m here to tell them it’s a false sense of security,” Workman told the Missoulian newspaper this week. “The spray is better than nothing, but I’ll choose a firearm every time.”

Not surprisingly, Workman’s comments set off something of a firestorm among hunters, biologists and preservationists in a state where the wildlife agency officially recommends that hunters and backcountry users carry and use commercial bear spray.

Some, including a FWP supervisor, said Workman’s total dismissal of bear spray is “a gross injustice.”

“You can shoot a bear five times and it can still live long enough to maul you, but bear spray works instantaneously,” said Mack Long, FWP Region 2 supervisor. “People don’t need to be afraid when they go into the woods. They just need to be ready.”

FWP authorities have determined that Workman shot the bear in self-defense and no charges or citations will be filed. The grizzly was neither found nor confirmed killed.

Despite the criticism, Workman is standing firm to his belief that had he not shot the charging bruin, he’d now be “either dead or in intensive care.”

“I’ve had people chastise me for not packing bear spray,” he told the Missoulian. “Some even suggested I had time to use it before I fired (Sunday), but they weren’t there. It happened in a nanosecond. Some absolute idiots would rather see a person potentially get eaten than harm a bear.”

Personally, when in grizzly country, I always recommend “a can and a Colt,” but fortunately, I’ve never had to make that critical split-second determination.

I already know some of our readers have strong opinions about the chemical spray issue—I received some private email from two readers in September who felt I should have addressed the need for carrying bear spray when I reported the earlier hunter/grizzly incidents.

So, what do you think? Should all backcountry users be required by law to carry bear spray? Should authorities not be as lenient with those who opt for firearms when defending themselves from grizzlies?