HomeOutdoorsNewsWhat do you do when bear spray fails?

What do you do when bear spray fails?

by Jon D. B.
american black bear attack bear spray
Large American black bear (Ursus americanus) in Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

An alarming April 22 encounter in Jasper National Park saw a black bear charge through close-range bear spray to kill a hiker’s dog.

Parks Canada would immediately close the trail and area. But for those who live in and visit bear country, what do we do when the recommended tool – bear spray – fails?

The Incident: Jasper National Park Hikers’ Dogs Attacked by Black Bear

“On Saturday, April 22, 2023, at 16:00, two visitors were hiking with two dogs on the Wabasso Lake Trail. The hikers were returning to the trailhead with the dogs running freely between the hikers,” Jasper National Park begins in their media release on the incident.

This is the first red flag. Bringing dogs into black bear territory is an ill-advised risk. But having them unleashed and roaming free is even more so. The majority of Canadian and American national parks require pets to be on leashes in all areas they are allowed at all times. What followed on April 22 is a prime example of why.

Soon, the hikers noticed a black bear had approached them “within a very close proximity on the trail,” the park continues. “One of the dogs chased the bear off the trail a short distance before the bear quickly reversed the chase.”

The over 200-pound bear doubled back, charging the hikers and their dogs. Coming within “a couple feet of one of the hikers where the second dog was standing and barking,” the bear then attacked this dog.

Deploying Bear Spray

This is when one hiker deployed bear spray “into the bear’s face at close range.” But the bear did not react or release the dog. Fearing for their pet, the hiker then “used the bear spray can to punch the bear in the head multiple times.”

Even this did not deter the bear, which then carried the dog into the woods off Wabasso Lake Trail.

“This close and aggressive approach by a large black bear is very concerning behaviour,” Jasper National Park notes. “The attack on the dog and subsequent caching of the carcass, indicates predatory behaviour.”

Such behaviour is considered a threat to public safety and a risk to park visitors. As a result, Parks Canada human-wildlife conflict specialists located the bear and “destroyed” it on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

“Destroying a bear is a last resort. Parks Canada considers hazing first and foremost to deter bears from highly visited areas, and then considers trapping and relocation. In this unusual and concerning encounter, the large 92 kg male bear, which had no identifying tags indicating previous interactions with Parks Canada personnel, displayed no fear or reaction to bear spray or punches. This non-typical behaviour indicates a highly habituated bear and increased the likelihood of further negative interactions.”

Jasper National Park

Parks Canada has since reopened surrounding trails. But Wabasso Lake Trail remains closed. And the question remains: what do we do when bear spray fails to protect us?

When Bear Spray Fails: Fight Like Hell

It is extremely rare for a black bear to attack a human, but bear-human conflicts are increasing. If you find yourself under assault from this species, fight back, and fight like hell.

  • Firstly, if bear spray fails and you find yourself being pursued or charged: never run from a black bear. This is critical. Fleeing is what prey does – and you never want to make yourself look more like prey.
  • Make eye contact with the animal at all times, and never turn your back to them. As with any large predator – be it a black bear or mountain lion – stand your ground.
  • This cannot be stressed enough: the old wives’ tale of playing dead does not work. If a black bear wants to kill you, it will try as hard as it can to do so. Therefore, it becomes your job to try just as hard to survive.
  • Stabbing at/or punching a bear in the eyes will be the quickest way to make it release you. If you can’t get to the eyes, go for the nose.
  • Use any object you can to fight back. Carrying a knife is a rule of thumb for most outdoorsfolk, and can also save your life in the event of an attack. While bears are enormous and strong, they don’t want to be stabbed any more than we do.

‘If a black bear truly attacks you, you fight back’

The information above is supported by leading U.S. bear biologists. As Bill Stiver, lead wildlife biologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park told me last year, in this “worst case scenario, If a black bear truly attacks you, you fight back.”

Where brown and grizzly bears typically attack in a defensive nature, black bear attacks “are typically offensive and predatory in nature,” Bill says. “And so you always fight back to try and get that animal off of you.”

For more information on navigating black bear country successfully, see our Surviving a Black Bear: How to Prevent Encounters and Deter an Attack next.

And for more on being BearWise in general with the species, see our National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist.