SALT LAKE CITY — While bringing a gun to a bear fight may seem like a solid way to win, experts say the gun largely provides a false sense of security — and would be similar to trying to shoot, and stop, a small car careening toward you at speeds of up to 35 mph.
It's not that firearms don't work, but many people can't load or aim them quickly enough in the panicky moments of a bear attack, according to a recent study by bear researchers at Utah's Brigham Young University.
"It's more about how you carry yourself than whether you carry a gun," said wildlife biologist Tom S. Smith, the study's lead author.
The report analyzed 269 armed human-bear encounters in Alaska between 1883 and 2009, and found that the use of guns made no statistical difference in the outcomes, and many people were mauled or killed anyway — 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities.
Other experts, however, question the findings, citing limited data given the thousands of human-bear encounters and noting that guns can be just as effective as pepper spray, and that each incident presents a different scenario.
"The bottom line of his research is correct — guns are not a crutch, but we do have a problem with his limited data," said Larry Van Daele, an Alaska state biologist on Kodiak Island.
Smith's report, published online in the Journal of Wildlife Management and set to appear in print in July, found that when guns were fired, they were effective at dissuading or killing a bear about 80 percent of the time in the cases studied, but at a cost. In nearly half those encounters, the people using guns or their companions were injured or attacked anyway, with 12 percent left fatally mauled.
Researchers found people trying to use guns to defend themselves against an advancing bear often couldn't fire them effectively in an instant of panic — 27 percent had no time to fire, and 21 percent were hesitant to discharge their weapons.
In addition, a jammed gun, a missed shot, a safety mechanism that couldn't be unlocked in time or a bear too close to shoot — among other problems — kept guns from being effective in some cases, the study found.
"If anything, our findings raise a cautionary flag about what we should do for protection in bear country," Smith said. "If we know we're not experienced with a firearm, don't even go there. It's probably not going to be any help at all. A charging animal is like a small car running at you. The odds are not good."
Smith's finding that a fifth of people carrying guns can't bring themselves to use it in a bear encounter is no surprise, he said.
Many people don't want the stigma of killing a bear, Smith noted, while others just don't want the hassle of having to skin it and file a report with wildlife officials, a required procedure in Alaska. Reporting requirements vary in other states where bears are present.
The ease of using pepper spray, it turns out, is more effective compared to the mechanical shortcomings of a gun and the hesitancy of some people to use lethal force, Smith said.
In an earlier study, Smith found that pepper spray worked for all but three of 156 people in 71 conflicts with bears.
Pepper spray also has a lasting advantage, Smith said.
"When you spray a bear, you are powerfully conditioning that animal to stay away from people," he said.
Another bear expert, however, said pepper spray and guns can be equally effective in trained hands, depending on the situation.
"I certainly don't think we should try to pit one tool against the other," said bear expert John Hechtel, a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist. "You get people arguing about the wrong things."
Experts say prevention is the best way to avoid deadly encounters, including hiking in a group, making noise and avoiding areas of poor visibility.
"One bear attack can ruin your whole day," Smith said.
When someone does encounter a bear, Smith says people should get deterrents ready but "let the bear work through the situation" before reacting to give the animal a chance to retreat.
"Talking in a calm voice, not moving when the bear's coming toward you, giving the bear a chance to think things over and realize you're not threatening," Hechtel said. "A lot of times that will resolve the situation."
Other experts largely agreed with Smith's message.
"A gun is a tool, but so is your brain," said John Shivik of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Using a gun should never been "Plan A," he said. "What it comes down to is that bears, cougars and wolves are predators, and we need to treat them with respect."