Guns vs. bears research in the Journal of Wildlife Management (2012) provides useful information for hunters, and intriguing data.
Primary author Tom Smith of BYU and his four co-authors examined 269 bear-human conflicts based on information on “bear attacks” found in books, newspaper articles, readily accessible state and federal records, and anecdotal information from 1883-2009.
Hunters, homesteaders, and other people have no doubt killed tens of thousands of bears during this time period, so selecting just 269 representative incidents posed a daunting task. Newspapers and books such as Alaska Bear Tales tend to focus on blood and gore bear attacks resulting in human injuries or deaths. Thus, firearms failures are emphasized. Smith and his colleagues acknowledge “the review process was subjective,” but state “we feel confident we limited our inferences to a minimum.”
Larry Van Deale, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s bear man on Kodiak Island, “expressed skepticism about the validity of Smith’s data-set.”
Hunters have also voiced concern about the accuracy and objectivity of this research.
The research on “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska” found that:
Bears injured people in 151 of 269 incidents. Most injuries involved brown/grizzly bears (81%). Only 10% of injuries involved black bears.
There was “no significant difference in success rates associated with long guns (76%) and handguns (84%).”
Firearms failed for a variety of reasons including lack of time to respond to the bear (27%), did not use the firearm (21%), mechanical issues such as jamming (14%), too close to the bear for deployment (9%), the shooter missed (9%), the gun was emptied and could not be reloaded (8%), people couldn’t get their safety off (8%), and people tripped and fell while trying to shoot (3%).
The caliber of the firearms used was disclosed in 90 incidents. People who used a 12 gauge shotgun had 16 successes, and 2 failures. People using one of the .300 caliber rifles had 7 successes, and 7 failures.
Once a bear charged, the odds of firearms success decreased nearly 7 fold.
People fired warning shots during 58 incidents, but the bear only broke off its attack 34% (20/58) of the time.
When the authors compared the outcomes for 229 people who used their firearm to 40 people who did not use their firearm, they found “no difference in the outcome, whether the outcome was no injury, injury, or fatality” for the human.
The most common cause of conflict was surprising bears (43%), followed by curiosity (23%), provoked (9%), hunted (7%), predatory (6%), carcass defense (3%) and other (8%).
Forty-four percent “of encounters occurred when the bear first appeared at” 10 meters or less from people, “with 91% of encounters occurring at distances of” 50 meters or less.
In 46% (37/39) close range encounters at 10 meters or less with brown/grizzly bears, firearms deterred the bear. In 93% (13/14) of close range encounter with black bears, firearms deterred the bear.
The primary activity of people involved in the 269 incidents included hunting (56%), extractive industry (10%), hiking (7%), scientific research (6%), sport fishing (6%), camping (4%), trapping (2%), and other (9%).
The data from Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska clearly demonstrates that sudden encounters with brown/grizzly bears at close range can prove hazardous to your health, and that people using firearms must be prepared to shoot quickly.
Firing a warning shot was not effective, and probably increases the risk a hunter will jam his rifle or have some sort of mechanical malfunction while hastily attempting to chamber another round.
The fact that a hunters odds for success decreased 7-fold if he didn’t shoot before the bear charged raises important questions: Why wait for a nearby bear to charge before shooting? If a stationary bear is dangerously close, why not shoot before it charges? How close is too close?
Anti-hunters and bear spray advocates claim hunters should use bear spray for self-defense, but during an interview with KNBA radio in Alaska, BYU professor Tom Smith told reporter Joaqlin Estus, “Somebody said, I wouldn’t put down my gun to use bear spray, and I said, well, I’m with you on that. I wouldn’t either. That doesn’t make any sense. If I had a gun in my hands and a bear was charging, I would start shooting and I wouldn’t quit until it was down and dead.”
In contrast to the dismal performance of firearms vs. bears in Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska, a study that included data on firearms use in “defense of life or property” on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula found that firearms were 99% effective.
From 1961-1999, a total of 70 brown bears were killed in defense of life or property, and only one person was injured. Forty bears were shot because they posed an “immediate threat.” Nineteen bears were “thought to be dangerous.” Thirteen bears were killed to “protect property.”