Montana Leads with Bear Spray Protection
Adult grizzly bear with the distinctively “dished” face and round ears (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy of Montana)
This piece was penned several years ago for Big Sky’s Lone Peak Lookout newspaper owing to the increase in bear and people encounters in the Madison and Gallatin ranges. What the article discusses is pertinent to any wild country in the state, so we bring it back as a reminder.
Be it biking, horseback riding or hiking, as more and more folks head out to enjoy the trails of the wilderness and national park lands near Big Sky, bear and human meetings are bound to increase. The Northern Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, of which the Upper Gallatin is part of, is prime habitat for grizzlies and black bear.
Ben Macht of Big Sky was mountain biking up Tepee Creek (now closed to bikes) on the northwestern edge of Yellowstone National Park. It was evening, and he was by himself getting ready to climb a steep grade. When he heard a grunting noise, at first he looked down at his gears to see if there was a problem with the bike and then immediately looked up and saw a grizzly sow with two cubs about 40 yards away. She was coming for him and moved so fast that he didn't have the time to get his bear spray ready. When the grizzly was a stride’s length away, she passed him, looped around and started back at him again. By this time, Ben had his spray out and was in a position to defend himself. When the bear was within 10 to 15 feet, he triggered the pepper spray full blast into the bear's face. Mother grizzly stopped on a dime, quickly wheeled around and tore up the hill followed by her scampering cubs.
This experience with a near mauling has made Macht a believer in carrying the spray. And we should mention, bears aren’t the only animals to be wary of. Moose also are prone to chase humans.
Andrew Schreiner, proprietor of Grizzly Outfitters, Big Sky’s outdoor shop, relates how folks will spend a considerable sum on raingear, jackets, packs and other gear for the mountains, but will balk at the $50 price for a can of bear spray, when it’s actually one of the most important pieces of equipment they can have. All it takes is one confrontation, as witnessed by Ben Macht's story. These canisters of self-defense have a great deal of research, testing and quality control behind them, hence the expense.
And Schreiner said, “You need the best product you can put in your hands for protection.” He has checked out all the products available on the market and found that the most effective is a product called Counter Assault manufactured in Kalispell, Montana. It meets or exceeds bear biologists’ and wildlife specialists’ recommendations. Their 8.1 ounce can will send a powerful fog of pepper concoction 30 feet and allow for a 7.2 second spray, the larger one will go 32 feet and last 9.2 seconds – it’s the spray time that’s most important. In testing the spray, we were impressed with the product’s power. We could see why Ben was able to stop the bear in its tracks.
Once you have invested in a spray, take care of it. Pay attention to shelf life. Counter Assault has a four-year lifespan, whereas the industry standard is somewhere from two to three years. Do not leave it on your dashboard in the hot sun, and in the winter don’t store it where it can freeze and thaw. When carrying this protection, make sure it’s in a place where you can’t drop it, and most of all, whether it’s for hiking, riding or biking, ensure that you can get at it quickly. Don’t stuff the can in your pack or put it on the outside of your pack in a place that’s hard to reach. For these purposes, a holster is best. You can also use a fanny pack that has water bottle holders on it for quick access. If a bear is charging, you have very little time to act. A holster works well because they’re set up so you can actually fire the can while it’s still in place.
And make sure when you buy your bear spray, that you know how to use it before you leave the store.
Interestingly enough, Counter Assault first came to life in Missoula when Bill Pound developed it. And the late Chuck Jonkel, a well-known grizzly bear expert, tested it. In 1997, Pride Johnson, a chemist, joined with Bill Pound, and then in 1999 Johnson became sole owner of the company and built the plant in Kalispell. They are the only manufacturer of pepper spray in the state.
Rick Graetz | Geography Department | University of Montana