Grizzly 399 and her cubs. Photo: Nick Sulzer

JACKSON, WY — A coalition of organizations today submitted petitions to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission proposing rules to require hunters in grizzly bear habitat to carry bear spray.

The proposals follow years of high grizzly bear mortalities and one human fatality due to hunter-related conflicts. 2018 was the “most lethal year ever for grizzlies” according to Wyoming Public Media, and grizzly fatalities increase during hunting months.

“Wyoming and Idaho have an opportunity to adopt a common-sense policy that will protect bears and hunters alike,” said Nicholas Arrivo, a staff attorney at the Humane Society of the United States. “The evidence that bear spray works is overwhelming, and the time to enact this life-saving proposal is now.”

Although grizzly bear conflicts with people remain relatively rare, data shows increasing numbers of conflicts between grizzly bears and humans during the fall hunting season as grizzly bears are drawn to gut piles left by hunters or come face to face with hunters in surprise encounters.

“Bear spray has been proven time and time again to be the most effective tool in preventing injury to both people and bears in close encounters, including hunting conflicts,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign. “It’s common sense to require hunters to carry bear spray, and agencies should act now to make it mandatory.”

In recent years, Yellowstone’s grizzly bears have suffered record levels of human-caused mortality. As of 2017, the 15 bears fatally shot during encounters with hunters represent the leading human cause of grizzly bear mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, eclipsing the previous highest cause of grizzly bear death — lethal removals for livestock losses. Most human injuries caused by grizzly bears occur during encounters with hunters.

The coalition says mandatory bear spray could prevent these unnecessary casualties, citing studies that show that bear spray is 98 percent effective at preventing human injuries during bear encounters. Firearms are only 50 percent effective.

“Some have suggested that a gunshot during hunting season is like a dinner bell to a grizzly bear, at a time when bears are filling their bellies before denning,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A mandate requiring hunters to carry bear spray would save the lives of people and bears.”

“This common-sense safety measure is akin to requiring a helmet when riding a bike,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “We know it works, and we know it saves lives, so it should be standard practice.”

“It’s clear and simple; bear spray works,” said Kristin Combs, executive director for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. “Hunters are extremely vulnerable, especially deep in bear habitat precisely when the animals are actively searching for food. This one easy practice will undoubtedly save the lives of both humans and bears.”

“There is still a lot of work to be done before grizzly bear conservation can be called a success,” said Josh Osher, public policy director for Western Watersheds Project. “Reducing bear mortalities and human injury by requiring hunters to carry bear spray is an obvious and effective policy with no downside.”