Friday, May 27, 2016


Chuck Bartlebaugh

Chuck Bartlebaugh prefers to be known as a "communication specialist in bears" though he was once a wildlife photographer.  He wants to educate people about safety when near bears.  Contact him at  He produces VERY useful pamphlets and they're free.  He called last night, loaded for journalists, and we had a high-pressure many-laughed exchange studded with the names of bear people.  Then he called today with a dozen small corrections and additions, but I over-ruled him by being older than he is, which saved a lot of effort on my part.

This post will be about one issue: bear spray.  In the Seventies when I was at Animal Control, the cops were using MACE and sometimes used it on vicious charging dogs.  It seemed mostly to befuddle the dogs.  Today the cops use tasers, though the stories begin to be pile up about deaths.

Over the years there have been stories about pressurized bear spray cans exploding in school lockers or airplanes, forcing evacuation, and on the other hand stories about bears licking tents that have capsiacin on them because they like hot sauce as much as a Mexican cowboy.  Rumor, exaggeration, danger, hilarity — it all piles up the confusion.  But the claim is that proper bear spray, properly used, is the most effective tool that a hiker or fly fisherman can have if there are bears around.

Co-driver trained by a taxidermist.

Define “proper” and “effective.”  That’s what Bartlebaugh is about, backed up with the research done by Chuck Jonkel in Missoula and now by his son, Jamie.  They have done a lot of research over a lot of years.  When the EPA, which has jurisdiction over stuff like quality control for bear spray, tested 15 aerosol sprays on the market collected at random, only five were effective and only one was really research based.  Telling the public about it has been a little “hairy” because so much of marketing these days is about legalities: restraint of trade, unverified claims, endorsements, deals with authorities, and so on.

Bear spray that's too weak (and only the stuff strong enough to work on an angry bear can and must legally be labeled BEAR spray) won't work and strong bear spray is forbidden for use on humans.  I remember in the Sixties a game warden getting into a fight with his wife.  He used his spray (I have no idea what potency) intending to spray her face, but she turned her head just in time.  It caused all the skin to peel off her ear.  Chuck doesn't want me to tell you that, because it might make you afraid to use the stuff.   But on the other hand, you want it to be potent.

Basically, the variation is not just in the amount or intensity of the actual chemical Capsaicin and capsaicinoids, but also in the delivery system and container.  EPA registered bear sprays are the only ones who can legally use the word BEAR, indicating that it is for deterrent use only and NOT for humans.  (Though some humans are more dangerous than bears.)  Minimum net content for BEAR spray is 7.9 ounces or 225 grams.  The EPA Reg.No. is a way to monitor the manufacturer and distributor without stigmatizing them by using a code to keep them anonymous.  Imagine the lawsuits if they were known companies and a toddler got hold of the BEAR spray.

Other variables — besides the obvious need for competent operators — are that the spray needs to be thoroughly homogenized or the first fluids out of the spray may not contain capsiacin — just propellant.  The spray should create a cloud of the red stuff that the bear will walk into if it comes towards you.  Keep it down low, since bears — like stallions — will put their heads down when they charge.  Keep spraying until the can is empty.  There should be enough to last at least six seconds.  Counterassault, the brand the professionals recommend, contains ten ounces and deploys for more than nine seconds.

For the person who wants to know how close is too close, 25 feet is suggested for the distance the spray should reach.  It should NOT make a thin forceful stream like wasp spray, but create a big cloud more like a squid deploying ink.  If there are a lot of bears around, carrying two cans is a good idea.

As always, the best protection is prevention and preparation.  High alert and an excellent sense of how to read bear body language are crucial outdoor skills in bear country.  Bears do not observe boundaries, so that individual animals could be anywhere at any time, even in winter if their hibernation is interrupted somehow, maybe by a snow slide.

Bartlebaugh has accumulated many educational jokes for his speeches.  He asks the kids which hand they should use if they want to feed a bear.  They make guesses and then he advises, “Use the hand you don’t write with.”  One of his obsessions is the entertainment industry of making bears seem harmless, like Gentle Ben, so that one ends up like Timothy Treadwell and his girl friend — in the gut of the bear.  “Teddy bears” don’t help.  There are no pink plush grizzlies.  Grizzlies have individual temperaments and experiences — they cannot be generalized except along a species-characteristic continuum.

We ran into controversy right away when Bartlebaugh pointed out that General H. Norman Schwartzkopf was the official spokesman for Be Bear Aware and Wildlife Stewardship Campaign.  But when I did my little liberal tirade about big authoritarian military men, Bartlebaugh did not panic — he explained his admiration in terms of specifics.  That put me on the side of both activist and general.

But it was the connection to Jonkel that really resonated.  He was not a pink plush kinda guy, and questions pulled him in even when the politically wary warned him off.  Both Jonkel and Bartlebaugh are good at involving women and students in their projects.  Jamie Jonkel carries on the work in Missoula.

Here’s a story that is connected and yet completely separated from bears in the Rockies as well as sentimental exploitation of bears.   Horatio was the nephew of a friend of mine.  His grandfather, ” Field Marshal Sir John Lyon Chapple GCB, CBE (born 27 May 1931) was a career British Army officer in the second half of the 20th century. He served as Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, from 1988 to 1992. Early in his early military career he saw action during the Malayan Emergency and again during the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation and later in his career he provided advice to the British Government during the Gulf War.”  I expect that General Schwartzkopf would appreciate that.”

This is a very British upper class story.  Horatio, a 17-year-old, went on an adventure tour with other kids his age to the far north, polar bear country.  They slept in tents put up on stony shingle that didn’t hold pegs very well.  The tents were surrounded by a warning trip fence but it didn’t stay up very well either.  The guides had rifles but they hadn’t been tested recently. 
Horatio Chapple

The area was roamed by a bear noted to be exceptionally gaunt and agitated.  In the night that bear came to Horatio’s tent, grabbed him by the head and hauled him out, despite the boy next to Horatio pounding on the bear’s face.  The guides' rifles failed for crucial moments until one fired and killed the bear.  It was too late.  The story went worldwide.  

I don’t know what the legal fallout has been.  Emotionally, the family decided on the creation of “Horatio’s Garden,” building on the boy’s intention to follow his father, David Chapple, MD, who is a physician treating spinal injuries.  Horatio had already been exploring the idea of healing gardens attached to hospitals.  Prince Harry is a patron. Their website (above) is lovely.

The whole time I heard about this tragedy, I thought, “If only they had had effective bear spray.”  Clearly the whole incident was rooted in incompetence on the part of the adventure company.  

Horatio was asleep, unsuspecting and unable to react fast enough even if he had had a can of “Counterassault”, the recommended brand of spray.  But the boy next to him could have used the spray.  It might have been unpleasant, but they would have lived.  I don't know whether Jonkel tested bear spray on the Canadian polar bears he studied, but they are close enough to grizzlies that the pressure of climate change starvation is evidently exposing their ability to interbreed, so that their color goes back to brown and their skulls go wide again. Hybrids are turning up. My bet is that spray would work.

Of course, the American attitude is often that one should be able to do hand-to-paw combat with bears, or else seduce them, but this tragic tale points to the folly of that mythology.  Reality is that bear spray can, well-used.

So at the Valier bear meeting, I asked the information people where we could buy bear spray locally, like on the way into Glacier Park.  They didn’t know.  The store in Choteau that used to sell it went broke and now sells used cars and flowers.  How American.

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I'm told that cyclists in sheep country are encountering hostile bear-guardian dogs, great big dogs, often white, that will chase vehicles. In fact, I was once chased on a dark night in a snowstorm by such a dog, but I was in a van -- not vulnerable. I've been advised that the proper response is NOT to use bear spray but to command "GO BACK TO THE SHEEP!!" They say that will work. In my experience dogs will mind men better than women unless women actively work with them.

Again, I recommend a compressed air boat horn that makes a terrible noise. Stories of success by any means are welcome.

Prairie Mary