Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Bear Spray Failure in Alaska, 46-Year-Old Killed Clearing Trail



Image of grizzly bear  by Troy Nemitz

On 29 July, 2020, Daniel Schilling went to clear trail about a mile from his cabin in Alaska. His dog returned home without him. His wife was very concerned. Searchers found his body, killed by a bear, where he was working. An empty can of bear spray, with the safety off, which had been discharged at the site, was also found.

From adfg.alaska.gov:

August 6, 2020 (Anchorage) - Employees of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) responded to the location of a fatal bear attack that occurred Wednesday, July 29, near the community of Hope, to collect samples and gather information. Hair collected during the initial investigation appeared to be from a brown bear. DNA was able to be extracted from some of the hair and from additional samples collected. Preliminary results identified female brown bear and female black bear DNA associated with the attack site and the victim, Daniel Schilling.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to Mr. Schilling’s family and friends during this very sad time,” said Cyndi Wardlow, Southcentral Regional Supervisor.

“While we may never know the full circumstances, we are trying to learn everything we can about what happened to help people stay safe around wildlife in Alaska.”
There were no witnesses to the events that led to the attack. An empty bear spray canister with the safety removed was found at the location of the attack, and it appeared that bear spray had been discharged at the site. No attractants, such as a dead moose or a food cache, were found in a search of the area during the investigation.

The attack may have been a predatory attack. Daniel Schilling was an avid hunter who had carried a revolver in a chest holster on a previous hunt. 


Shilling had a dog with him. It seems unlikely Daniel was caught by surprise.  It appears he did not have the revolver with him when he was attacked.  From the picture in the hunt article, the revolver was a Smith & Wesson 629.

How much of his decision to take bear spray, and not a revolver, was made because of the hyped claims of bear spray effectiveness? 

Consider how researchers Herrero and Smith have treated bear spray and firearms. 

Bear spray and firearms were treated much differently in the original papers by Herrero and Smith. It may not have been intentional when the papers were written.

It is misleading to compare the two studies and make the claim that bear spray is more effective than firearms.

In the study of bear spray effectiveness, only cases where bear spray was actually used were recorded.  In the study involving firearms, cases of bear and human conflict "involving" firearms were considered. Cases where the firearm was not fired were included. Cases where the bear was missed were included. Cases where there was mechanical failure were included. Many cases where firearms were used to successfully stop bears were excluded, depending on the authors determination of whether the people were at risk. No cases where bear spray was successfully used to alter aggressive bear behavior were excluded, as closely as I can read in the original papers.

When the calculations for the successful use of bear spray were done, the percentage is between the number of people injured in human bear encounters where bear spray is used.  In the firearms study, the percentage of firearms cases were those which resulted in success in human-bear conflicts where firearms are involved.

These differences render the comparison of the two studies nearly worthless. Unfortunately, Herrero and Smith invite comparison of the two methods in their 2018 paper. Significant differences in the studies of the two methods are easily missed by the casual reader.

Human-bear encounters are defined by Herrero and Smith as:

A “human–bear interaction” (also known as an “encounter”),
occurs when a person and bear are mutually aware of each
other (Smith et al. 2005).

Human-bear conflicts are defined by Herrero and Smith as below:

“Human–bear conflict” occurs when a bear has exhibited
stress-related or curious behavior such that a person took
evasive action, a bear made physical contact with a person,
exhibited predatory behavior, or was intentionally harmed or
killed (not including legal harvests) by a person.

The percentage of success with bear spray was determined as the number of people involved in encounters where bear spray was used (75 encounters, 197 people, 4 injured) as 98% not injured. As carefully as I can read the studies, the 98% figure is for the number of people involved, not the number of people who used bear spray. Incidents where people were not at risk were included. Notice the large number of people involved in these encounters, an average of more than 2.6 people per encounter.  Herrero and Smith could clear this up. Were the bear spray encounters also human-bear conflicts?  Were the four people injured in four separate incidents, or only 1 incident?

The percentage of success with firearms was determined by incident. The total number of people involved was not used.  Incidents where people were not at risk were excluded.

In any fair comparison of deterrent methods, if incidents when a person who shoots at a bear and misses, or when a firearm malfunctions, are counted as firearm failures when the attack is not stopped, then spraying at a bear and missing or where the spray malfunctions, when the attack is not stopped, should be counted as a bear spray failure.

Popular writer about bears in Alaska, Craig Medred, had these comments. 

He is reluctant to call this a case of bear spray failure.  From craigmedred.com:

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game today revealed the safety trigger on the spray had been removed, the canister itself was intact, and there was evidence of pepper residue in the area.

All of those things would lead to the conclusion Schilling discharged the spray, but there is no way of knowing whether the spray hit the bear or how much aerosol was in the can to propel the active ingredient –  capsaicin – toward the animal.

Canisters of bear spray, like fire extinguishers, can lose pressure over time. Some companies now put expiration dates on their containers. A woman in the Yukon Territory, Canada, a few years ago reported a nasty experience with an expired canister that oozed fluid instead of spraying it at the troublesome black bear she encountered.

Consider if the situation involved a revolver instead of bear spray. The analogous situation would be if Daniel Schilling was found with a revolver with a cylinder full of discharged cartridges, and there was evidence of shots fired in the area.  Perhaps Craig Medred would be as reluctant to call that a firearms failure.  

Researchers Herrero and Smith, whom Craig cites, are not reluctant to place the widely different results from the previous papers, next to each other, inviting comparison. From the 2018 paper's insights, page 11.

11. Bear spray was highly effective in Alaska, with 98% of
persons using spray avoiding any injury.

12. Firearms were effective 76% of the time when used as
bear deterrents. Only skilled firearms users should rely
primarily on firearms for bear protection.

In the insights, the 76% figure of effectiveness for firearms is mentioned.  it appears these figures apply to human-bear conflicts.  In the insights, it is claimed 98% of persons using bear spray ( not simply involved) avoided injury.  It appears these numbers apply to human bear encounters. It is not clear if there are different definitions for bear spray and firearms encounters/conflicts.

Herrero and Smith should explain the differences. The differences seem to make bear spray appear more effective and firearms appear less effective.

In the firearms numbers, handguns are somewhat more effective than long guns. (84% v 76% in the 2012 paper, 81% v 75% in the 2018 paper)

AmmoLand has published the latest collections of all cases which we have been able to document, where handguns were used to defend against bears. Those numbers show 93 cases. Handguns were 97% effective. 

Only cases where a handgun was actually fired were included in the AmmoLand data. Those cases were not limited to Alaska. Both of those differences could explain the difference between the AmmoLand data and Herrero and Smith data.

The 2008 bear spray paper and the 2012 firearms paper are referenced. A reader who is not extremely diligent will compare the firearms and bear spray numbers, without realizing how much different the definitions in the two studies are.  Herrero and Smith could clear this up by telling us if the numbers produced in the 2018 totals of the 682 human-bear conflict data use different definitions of success for bear spray and for firearms. 

The 2018 study tells us 328 of the 682 incidents involved firarms, but only 246 are listed as successful or not successful for long guns or handguns. Perhaps the numbers did not vary much for the other 82 cases; perhaps they were inconclusive, or the type of firearm was not mentioned. It would be nice to know.

Bear spray is a useful tool, for those areas where people are not allowed to defend themselves with firearms.  It is better than hands and feet for those people unwilling to carry firearms. It can be effective in hazing bears which are not a threat. 

Bear spray has not been shown to be more effective at stopping a human-bear conflict than firearms, particularly handguns.

A significant problem with bear spray, in human-bear conflicts, is the bear is not killed. The bear is free to go on to the next human-bear conflict, or when the bear spray can is emptied, the bear may simply attack again. 

Bears in North America are not endangered. There are plenty of bears. Bear populations are expanding. The small number of bears that come into direct conflict with humans can be shot and killed without any danger to the overall bear population, whether it be black, grizzly or polar bear.

©2020 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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