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Bad bear advice might be worse than no advice at all

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 21, 2018
  • Published June 21, 2018

Mike Taras is a wildlife safety trainer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. His training includes instruction on the use of bear spray. (Marc Lester / ADN)

As is often the case when I'm reading one of John Schandelmeier's wildlife columns, I find myself agreeing with him until he offers up one or two completely inaccurate and off-the-wall beliefs as facts. In his latest column, Schandelmeier argues that Anchorage bike trails are the most dangerous place in the United States for bear attacks and that bear spray doesn't work.

Using Mr. Schandelmeier's reasoning, Anchorage is also the most dangerous place in Alaska to drive a car, cross the street, visit a playground, eat a hot dog, stand on a ladder, light your oven, take a bath, go to the hospital or get old. Why? Because more people die doing these things in Anchorage than anyplace else in the state.

Mr. Schandelmeier fails to account for the number of people engaged in these activities. Maybe more people are attacked by bears on bike trails in Anchorage because no other community has thousands of miles of bike trails, with thousands of people using them every day (and night) when bears are active.

Nevertheless, his whole argument about bear attacks on bike trails is blown out of the water by one disingenuous implication. "Bike trail" makes it sound like bears are plucking cyclists off the Coastal Trail. No one has been attacked by a bear on a paved bike trail in Anchorage. Perhaps Mr. Schandelmeier considers a bike trail any trail that one can ride a bike on. In most of the bear attacks I'm familiar with in Anchorage, the person was on a unimproved trail or road in Chugach State Park or Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson used by hikers, runners and bikers, not a paved trail in the city as Mr. Schandelmeier implies.

According to Mr. Schandelmeier, "pepper spray has little use" in forestalling a bear attack. Hundreds of people who have used bear spray on bears would beg to differ. In most instances the bear has aborted the attack without injuring the user. The spray has even curtailed bear attacks after initial contact. In a few cases, the user has been injured, but even then there is every reason to believe that the spray diminished the intensity or duration of the attack. Can Schandelmeier point to a single instance where a bear has killed someone using bear spray? Because all you have to do is read one of Larry Kaniut's lurid books about bear attacks in Alaska to figure out that bears have injured and killed lots of people toting firearms.

Mr. Schandelmeier claims that nobody who is afraid of a bear would stand still long enough to use the spray at close range, a contention that has been contradicted hundreds of times. Note to Mr. Schandelmeier: everyone is afraid of being mauled by a bear, not just the effete "city folks" he seems to be offering his advice to.

Contrary to Mr. Schandelmeier's unsourced opinion, bear spray works quite well in situations where you are threatened by a bear at close range, which is the very essence of a bear attack. One Fish and Wildlife Service study found that, in actual encounters, bear spray has proven to be more effective at avoiding human injury than bullets.

Tom Smith, Steve Herrero and other researchers analyzed 83 bear-spray incidents in Alaska between 1985 and 2006. They found that 98 percent of those employing bear spray were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters. In three instances where people were injured, the injuries were minor.

A 2008 report by the International Grizzly Bear Committee includes recommendations based on research and letters that support the use of bear spray from bear experts and others who actually know what they are talking about.

A more recent article in Mountain Journal, "To Live or Die in Bear Country," provides a great explanation of how and when to use bear spray.

All of Mr. Schandelmeier's experience in the Bush doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this debate. He's no expert on bears or bear spray —  or bike trails, for that matter. I doubt he has ever used bear spray on a bear. Has he read the research and testimonials on the effectiveness of bear spray I provide links to in the online version of this article?

His solution for surviving the purported no-man's-land that exists along Anchorage bike trails? Carry a shotgun. In his review of risk factors that loom larger than bear attacks, Schandelmeier conveniently forgot to mention the number of deaths due to firearms, accidental and on purpose. Alaska already has the highest firearm death rate of any state. In 2014, as in other recent years, gun deaths (145) have exceeded motor vehicle deaths (87) in Alaska.  I hope that his advice doesn't result in an increase in people carrying shotguns on Anchorage's bike trails, because I guarantee more people will shoot themselves and passersby than will ever be harmed by rogue bears.

If people take his advice to heart, a year or two from now, when people ask what is the most dangerous threat to people using Anchorage's bike trails, we'll be able to say, "John Schandelmeier."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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