Saturday, July 20, 2024

Handguns and bear spray

by Warren Illi
| May 16, 2024 12:00 AM

Wow, it’s springtime in the Flathead. Last weekend was a great spring weekend with daytime highs in the 70s and 80s, plus bright sunny skies.

But these beautiful spring days which we love, may also bring some unwanted visitors to our backyards – bears, both black bears and grizzly bears. So, it’s bear aware time. After spending several months in hibernation, when the bears sense warmer spring days, they emerge from their dens and they are hungry. Grizzlies usually hibernate about 6,000 feet, so as they emerge from their dens, their denning areas are usually still surrounded by deep snows, with no native vegetation to eat. If they denned on the west side of the Swan or Whitefish mountains, they can peer west or south and see the lush green Flathead Valley. Want to guess where they will head to get something to eat? Yep, could be our backyards.

Bear aware time means we should eliminate any attractions in our yards that might attract a bear. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a ton of  information on how best to make your backyard less attractive to bears. All of their recommendations could be labeled as common sense. But a common problem with common sense is that it is not always common or convenient.  One of their common sense recommendations is to put your backyard barbecue in the garage at night. Barbecues usually have lots of lingering good smelling residues from your last steak or hamburger fry. Bears have fantastic noses that can detect that good barbecue smell from a long way. Do I put my barbecue away at night? Nope. None of my neighbors that I know put their barbecue’s in their garages at night. If you have bird feeders full of bird seed, they are also a bear attractant and should be put in the garage at night.  

I, like most of my neighbors, have fruit trees. Usually apples, plum and cherry trees. It is common knowledge that bears like these fruits. Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommends that fruit trees be surrounded by a heavy steel fence with an electric fence installed outside the steel fencing. That same fencing should be installed around all vegetable gardens. Many of us have light weight fiber netting around our vegetable gardens to keep the deer out. One swat of a bear’s front paw and they would be through my deer netting. If we followed all the food attractions securing recommendations of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, our backyards would look like a fortified military position.

That raises the issue of our constitutional rights. My reading of the Montana constitution says that we are entitled to the peaceful use of our property. It almost seems contradictory to pay thousands of dollars per year in state and local taxes to have state and local law enforcement agencies keep us safe from two-legged predators, while wildlife agencies promote the increase of four-legged predators which can threaten us and kill us. Of special concern to me are grizzly bears that have the scientific name of Ursus arctos horribilis which accurately describes their disposition. It’s horrible! It seems reasonable to me that public officials should do everything reasonable to keep these wild critters away from us human folks. 

Last week the Missoulian had a long article from a retired grizzly bear biologist that suggested that any killing of a “threatened” grizzly bear  for self-defense should be investigated by federal law enforcement officials. This article was the result of a recent killing of a grizzly bear by a Montana citizen, shed hunting (picking up antler sheds), on the east slope of our mountains. While shed hunting, the man surprised a mature grizzly bear, which was only 20 yards away. The shed hunter was armed with a large caliber pistol and killed the bear as it charged him. The biologist suggested the shed hunter should have been carrying a can of bear spray and could have used the bear spray to defend himself from the bear.

I have several cans of bear spray and have tested them from time to time. A sniff or two of that bear spray put me out of effective working conditions immediately. So, I have no doubt that a healthy dose of bear spray in the nose of the grizzly might have stopped the bear attack. But when you consider the strength and speed of a grizzly bear to cover the 20 yards or 60 feet to the surprised shed hunter, there would be absolutely no time for second guessing. I believe the bear could have closed those 60 feet in just 3 to 4 seconds. If the hunter had just fumbled a second or two trying to deploy his bear spray, the bear would have been on him and would have seriously hurt or killed the hunter. There would have been no time for a second defensive effort by the hunter.

So why would a shed hunter be carrying a high caliber handgun? Probably for defensive purposes, specifically for the reason why he used the gun to kill the bear. There have been several other kills of grizzly bears over the past year or so, where big game hunters have killed a charging grizzly bear. Most hunters I know can almost instantly raise their rifles and fire a shot or two at a charging grizzly much quicker than fumbling with a strap and snap that holds their bear spray securely in the bear spray holder. While it is important to maintain a viable grizzly bear population, we should not treasure a bear’s life over that of a human. 

In recent years, grizzly populations have increased dramatically. Both the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are several hundred bears over their target populations according to bear management plans. In addition,  there are many thousands of grizzlies alive and well in Canada and Alaska. Grizzlies are not going extinct. Of critical importance with future grizzly management is public support. There is no doubt that on a statewide basis and national basis, there is widespread public support for healthy grizzly populations. But should grizzly bear management be governed by those of us that live in grizzly bear county or by  citizens that live a thousand miles from a grizzly bear on the 10th story of an apartment building?

So as our spring progresses, keep bear awareness in mind.