Bear spray manufacturers get a hit of reality

  • Center for Wildlife Information photo

MISSOULA, Mont. - One summer night in 1977, Bill Pounds awoke to chewing and grunting sounds outside his tent. The disabled Vietnam vet had set up camp near Hungry Horse Reservoir in northwestern Montana. "Coming from Arkansas, I thought it was a wild hog," he says. Then he remembered that there are no wild hogs in Montana. The noises were coming from a bear.

As the moments dragged on, the bear put its nose against the tent fabric and inhaled. Even in the dark, Pounds could distinguish two large nostrils. "My hair was standing straight up," he says. "I had a little pistol with me, but I had a feeling of total inadequacy and vulnerability."

Pounds never did see the bear, but the next morning he realized he had pitched his tent in the middle of a huckleberry patch, a favorite food for bears.

The incident set Pounds thinking about how to protect his family from bears. "I retooled a shotgun and took it to my wife. But she said she didn't want to carry it. Plus, the kids were too small," he says. "I tried to think of something else the whole family could carry."

Then, he remembered an experience he'd had years before in a small fishing village in Mexico. A group of mischievous locals were trying to talk him into eating a small green pepper. "I got suspicious, so I just scratched the skin of the pepper with my teeth. That alone was enough to take my breath away," he says. "After I remembered that, I immediately tried to figure out how to get pepper in an aerosol can."

A Florida company agreed to make five cans of pepper spray for Pounds at $100 a can, and bear spray was born. In 1986, Pounds put his invention, "Counter Assault," on the market, bolstered by studies from University of Montana bear biologist Chuck Jonkel showing that pepper spray could turn around a charging grizzly.

For more than a decade, the number of backcountry users carrying pepper spray steadily grew. Tests showed that it is more efficient than firearms in turning back charging bears - an 85 percent success rate compared to 50 percent for guns, according to Canadian researchers. Pepper spray also protects bears. "When a grizzly bear mauls a human or loses its innate fear of people, it is often destroyed (by wildlife managers)," says Chuck Bartlebaugh with the Missoula-based Center for Wildlife Information. "If pepper spray turns back the bear, it lives."

But recent studies have cast some doubts on whether pepper spray is as perfect a solution as people once thought.

Repellent or garnish?

Questions about bear spray arose last summer, when Tom Smith, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska, announced that bears seemed to be attracted to pepper spray residue. Smith watched bears rolling in the stuff after he had sprayed it on the ground.

Confusion arose when some journalists reported that Smith thought it was dangerous to use the product. Actually, Smith remains a staunch advocate of pepper spray. "It's saved my bacon a number of times," he says. But he warns that the product should only be used on an attacking bear and not sprayed around a campsite as a repellent.

Still, Smith's observations prompted ChemArmor, a Missoula-based firm, to begin warning consumers that oil-based pepper sprays draw bears into campsites. This spring, ChemArmor circulated literature describing a number of encounters allegedly stimulated by spray residue.

The literature was also a plug for ChemArmor's new spray formula that substitutes a synthetic chemical for the red pepper extract found in most other sprays. "We don't need the product to taste like chili," says company spokeswoman Kate Dwire. "If that residue attracts bears, then there will be potential human/bear encounters."

But some bear experts are crying foul. "It's deceptive when one company says, "Our bear spray doesn't attract bears' - meaning that everyone else's does," says Chuck Jonkel, director of the Great Bear Foundation. "Two-thirds of a bear's world is keyed to odors. Take anything out there that the bears haven't smelled before and they'll come."

Cheap imitations?

Confusion for the consumer doesn't stop with this controversy. A few years after inventor Bill Pounds first marketed Counter Assault, copycat products began appearing on the market. Since the industry was unregulated at the time, some substandard sprays made it to store shelves.

Last fall in Wyoming, a grizzly bear charged a hunter who then doused the animal with bear spray. But the grizzly didn't stop. Another hunter shot the bear as it bit his friend.

Scott Fitzwilliams, then spokesman for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, who inspected the shooting, was taken aback when he read the label on the spent bear spray can and discovered that it was intended to stop humans, not bears. "It read something like, 'After spraying the attacker, call 911 immediately,' " he says.

There has been some progress in regulating bear spray. In 1993, Environmental Protection Agency officials warned manufacturers not to label their products as specifically for use on animals while the agency developed a system for certifying the spray, since technically, it is a pesticide. Companies were slow to register, so last November the EPA threatened to pull spray cans from stores if manufacturers didn't apply for certification immediately.

Last May, Counter Assault became the first EPA-registered bear spray. As of mid-April, the agency had registered four sprays.

Still, some experts say the EPA hasn't gone far enough. "They aren't having the products individually tested by third-party observers," Bartlebaugh says. "It looks as if they'll register anything. It would help if they would list all the contents on the label."

But EPA spokesman Dan Peacock says that the certified products which carry labels specifying they contain 1 percent to 2 percent capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, as well as spray distance and volume, are considered adequate to deter an aggressive bear. "We could have had a bad situation if things had continued to drift, with people making it in their bathtubs," he says.

The author recently put his bear spray to use near his home in Hot Springs, Montana.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears with a sidebar, "A spray can is no substitute for smarts."

You can contact ...

* Chuck Bartlebaugh, Center for Wildlife Information at 406/523-7756;

* Kate Dwire, ChemArmor at 406/549-7963;

* Chuck Jonkel, Great Bear Foundation at 406/829-9378;

* Dan Peacock, EPA at 703/305-5407.

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