Press "Enter" to skip to content

Bears seem to like pepper spray

Brief by Betsy Marston

Wildlife – May 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Grin and Bear It

There’s hot news from Anchorage, Alaska, and many hikers are going to recoil in horror when they hear it. The red pepper spray that’s supposed to ward off black bears may do just the opposite — attract them.

Evidence so far is anecdotal, but U.S. Geological Survey researcher Tom Smith (contact him on the Internet at says he’s seen a bear rolling on a rope sprayed just a week earlier with red pepper extract. It was a lot like seeing “a 500-pound cat with a ball of catnip,” Smith says. If either a black bear or a grizzly charges, spraying its mouth, eyes and nose still should work, Smith contends, but spraying the extract on your body or clothes might lure bears.

One spray company in Montana, Counterattack, says it will change the wording on its packaging to “bear deterrent instead of repellent,” reports Assiciated Press. Apparently some parents have been dousing their children with the spray.

Bear researcher Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks, says the big question is this: Where do you store pepper spray when you’re camping in the back country? “Do you sleep with it under your pillow?” A bear-proof container somewhere far away might be just right, he concludes.

But that can also lead to a problem. Folks in Libby, Mont., complain the bear-proof containers in their town are so tough people “can’t physically open these boxes,” reports Libby’s Western News. You seem to need three hands to stuff garbage in the bins, and some people have been injured when the lids snap shut. Then, when they complain to the county, they’re told no one else has a problem. “Of course not,” says local Allyce Hansen. “Our comments are not being taken down.”

— Betsy Marston, High Country News