Field Notes

How Bear Spray Can Save Polar Bears

by JasonNov 5, 2013

We had just returned to Winnipeg from our 2013 polar bear expedition in Churchill, Manitoba when we heard the news. Two polar bears had been shot dead in the town of Churchill by Manitoba conservation officers after one of them attacked two people in the middle of the night. Though only one bear was involved, officers decided to kill the other one just to be safe and tranquilize and capture a cub that was traveling with its mom! Two polar bears lay dead and two people were left shaken with minor injuries. I was already concerned about the state of Manitoba’s polar bear management policies after my two trips there to photograph and study the bears but after hearing about this unnecessary conflict between these bears and people I realized it might be time to start questioning the current state of polar bear management in Manitoba. Could there be better, non-lethal techniques to reduce conflict and create a safer coexistence for both bears and people in the event of an encounter? Even more important could there be better strategies that could be employed to reduce the availability of attractants in town by employing bear proof trash cans and stricter controls on waste management within town? I believe the answer to both questions is yes and hope we can move quickly to avoid more unnecessary polar bear deaths and human injuries.

Every fall up to a thousand polar bears begin moving to the coast near the port town of Churchill to wait for the annual freeze up on the Hudson Bay. This time of year is known locally as bear season for good reason. Not only do polar bears begin migrating in mass through town on their way to their favorite places to wait for the ice but thousands of people start showing up in hopes of getting a glimpse of these incredible apex predators. Though polar bears can be seen along this part of the Hudson Bay coast during any season, late October though November is when the action really starts. This year it seamed like the season started overnight. Though we were lucky enough to see bears all but our first day, the proof of more bears showing up each day was clearly discernible in the snow. Their tracks were everywhere, including several sets of tracks from the night before imprinted in the snow on the street right in the middle of town.

As a matter of fact, an ex-RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer that used to patrol these streets and help conservation officers with bear management in town, told me that if you want to see bears drive through town at 2am and you are almost guaranteed to see a polar bear moving around in or near town. To a polar bear Churchill is just another obstacle to the seasonal sea ice that provides the best opportunities to find seals, an important source of nutrition for their survival. Situated right on the coast with the north edge of town only 150 yards from the beach the town presents a complex barrier to the migration of some bears that are moving up the coast and much more serious problem for the ones who decide this is a good spot to wait for the ice. Not only is Churchill in a geographic polar bear vortex, it is also home to a lot of really attractive smells including the delicious Gypsy’s Bakery (a must visit for any visitor to the area), trash cans and anything else the bears might discover from time to time.

It is these realities of life in Churchill that long time residents have learned to live with. We have heard stories from several locals that have had hair raising close encounters with polar bears on the streets (usually in the middle of the night or early morning) and all have used different methods to ward off the curious bruin. One employee working at Cape Mary just outside of town mentioned an encounter he had. The bear saw him, he saw the bear and when the bear began to approach him curiously he told the bear to go away. Here is a lone man confronted by a very big bear in the middle of the night and what does the bear do – he goes away. Another incident involved a bear on a lady’s porch that must have smelled food in her house. Like the previous guy, she told the bear to go away but decided to bear needed a little incentive to move so she hit him with a broom! The bear decided to move away.

There are countless stories like this that tend to only make their rounds in casual conversation among friends and are rarely worthy of headline news. These are harrowing tales of close calls and exposure to the very real possibility of having a serious encounter with a wild animal much larger, much faster and certainly dominate in any interaction where the human is unarmed. There are thousands of people on the ground in polar bear country doing a variety of tasks including hunting, dogsledding, snowmobiling and even camping throughout the year, yet the number of negative encounters are pretty limited. This to me says that polar bears, in most cases, show restraint and respect in most of their dealings with people and that despite their menacing reputation they are usually not malicious towards people.

Though polar bears can tend to be more curious than their black and brown cousins, most polar bears would rather avoid a confrontation with people and are often careful and shy when they know people are around. As with other species of bears, there are definitely a couple of exceptions. Probably the most likely bear to curiously approach humans and create a source of conflict are younger bears that are no longer with their mother. These ‘teenage’ bears act just about like a teenage human by being inquisitive, testy and always pushing the limits to learn about the world around them. Unlike teenagers though, these kids are big, don’t know their own strength and have often not learned their most important life lesson – that people are extremely dangerous to polar bears. To make matters worse, it is these younger bears who are often in search of food as they tend to be the least successful at catching seals and coming off the ice fat enough to make it through the ever lengthening ice free summers.

Though it would be unusual for even a hungry younger bear to actually prey on a person, an old sick bear could be just desperate enough to try to actually feed on a human being. Though this is rare it is certainly possible. The number of people actually consumed by a polar bear in recorded history is low, especially given how many encounters occur every year. There have only been two recorded fatalities due to polar bears in Churchill and neither seemed to involve predation. The more likely source of a negative encounter involves surprising a bear. Surprise encounters with any bear can be the most dangerous as there is little time for neither the bear nor human to react properly. Often the bear will lash out and in these cases and make contact with the person. Though these encounters can seem vicious, they often only lead to relatively minor injuries, especially given what these animals are capable of. It is always amazing to me how many people walk away from bear attacks, especially polar bears.

One of the most recent confrontations took place a couple weeks before we arrived for our trip. Again the man was walking alone in the middle of the night and was approached by a sub-adult polar bear near the previously mentioned bakery right on the main drag in Churchill. He reacted by pulling out his cell phone which, according to accounts in the news, startled the bear enough for him to move away at which time he knocked over a flower pot, further scaring the bear. This allowed him to move away to safety with only minor injuries. This bear was subsequently sedated by conservation officers and sent to the new polar bear exhibit at the Winnipeg zoo, a controversial decision that has many in Churchill starting to question the new politic behind needing to stock the new exhibit. This is a classic case of a young curious bear getting himself in trouble while exploring the sights and smells of town. Had this bear been actually hunting the victim I’m pretty sure the outcome would have been quite different. These are animals that can pull several hundred pound seals out of the water in the blink of an eye and have them mostly consumed in a matter of seconds! I think it is a stretch to think this skilled predator would not be able to kill and eat an I-phone toting human in no time.

Though some of the details of the most recent event haven’t been made public, some of the story has been released. According to Canadian news sources, including this article in the Calgary Herald, a polar bear approached a 30 year old woman walking home from a party with her friends in the early morning hours of November 1st, 2013. She ran from the bear screaming for help onto a porch where the bear followed her and apparently mauled her. The resident of the house came out and hit the bear with a shovel at which time she was able to run into the house but the bear shifted his attention onto the man with the shovel. The bear was seen pawing him and was standing on him and pushing down on him – a pretty common move they use when sparring and trying to crush things in the soil or snow. Soon other neighbors awoke and fired 12 gauge bear deterrent rounds at him which temporarily caused the bear run a few steps away before turning again toward the victim. It took the neighbor to jump in his truck and charge the bear to get the bear to leave long enough to get the victim to safety.

Afterward, conservation officers killed two bears that were in the area – the bear that was directly involved and another bear that was in the area. It was also reported that one of the bears had a cub with her which was subsequently tranquilized and captured. This was a bad day for the two people attacked but certainly a much worse day for the bears, especially the young cub who is almost guaranteed to be sent to the new zoo exhibit!

During our first visit to Churchill we all had cans of bear spray which we commonly carry with us while traveling in grizzly and black bear country. Our thinking was that if it works on other bears it will most likely work on a polar bear and would be better than nothing at any rate. It was interesting to talk to locals about bear spray. The would notice it sticking out of our pockets or sitting on our dashboards in the car and give us that unmistakeable look that said “these guys don’t know what they are doing!” Almost without exception we were told unequivocally that bear spray didn’t work on polar bears. Even seasoned wildlife biologists specializing in polar bears have told me that it probably wouldn’t work on a polar bear. Their reasoning was that since it had never been tested in them it didn’t work. To me this just didn’t make a lot of sense.

A bear spray canister can discharge pepper spray for several seconds even in high winds.


Bear Spray is basically an industrial-sized can of pepper spray, aptly named for its main active ingredient, a pepper extract called Capsaicin. The idea behind bear spray is simple. If you find yourself face-to-face with a bear that seems interested in taking a bite out of you, calmly pull out your bear spray, remove the safety tab, and discharge several ounces of severe discomfort into the bear’s face. This stuff is nasty (yes I know first hand!) and to my way of thinking, if you have a nose, eyes and lungs, you will not be happy with a face full of bear spray and will probably get away from the source no matter how big and strong you think you are. The beauty of bear spray is that you can save yourself without causing permanent harm to the bear, and maybe teach the bear to avoid people, thus saving it from future conflicts.

The success rate in cases where people deployed bear spray in an aggressive encounter with both black and brown bears is over 90%, where there was no permanent injury to the bear nor human involved. There is also mention of bear spray successfully deployed on polar bears in the same study authored by leading bear experts, including acclaimed author Stephen Herrero. In the paper he co-authored entitled Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska, published in The Journal for Wildlife Management, the authors document a case where spray was successfully deployed on polar bears with success.

Two decades of bear spray use in Alaska confirm that it is an effective bear deterrent. Findings by Herrero and Higgins (1998) regarding the efficacy of bear spray in Alaska from 1985 to 1995 were comparable to ours for the following decade, 1996–2006. As there were only 2 incidents involving polar bears, these results should be interpreted with caution. However, we located 3 additional polar bear incidents, 2 from Russia and one from northern Canada, which support our findings (Cochran 2000, Ovsyanikov 2004). In Russia and Canada, bear spray successfully protected the user from injury by aggressive polar bears. The only injuries (n 1⁄4 3) associated with bear spray usage in Alaska were inflicted by brown bears, consistent with findings by Middaugh (1987) and Herrero and Higgins (2003) that brown bears are the most aggressive of all 3 North American bear species.-Journal for Wildlife Management

In addition, they also discuss one of the main challenges to using bear spray as a deterrent on polar bears in Churchill – wind. The authors succinctly document bear spray use in high wind and conclude that it is still effective despite a reduced range and the possibility of spraying yourself during the encounter. This argument was one we heard from several people, to which I replied I would rather have bear spray than nothing.

In the cases above the victims of the bear attacks were basically unarmed and unprepared to deal with an aggressive and/or curious bear despite living and working in ‘The Polar Bear Capital of the World’. Out of the three people injured in the two events, one was armed with a cell phone, one with a shovel and one with nothing at all. Had all three people been armed with bear spray, especially given the circumstances, I believe that no one would have been injured and the bears would still be alive. This is one of the most crazy aspects of people in Churchill not embracing bear spray. Instead of at least carrying a can when they walk around town at night, they have nothing. Just having the bear spray will immediately change the interaction since instead of running or yelling, both bad ways to react in the presence of a bear, people could confidently stand there ground and verbally reprimand the bear in a way that will probably reduce conflict alone. Telling a bear to go away in a confident firm tone will often be all it takes. Running away and turning your back, on the other hand will often trigger an attack from even the least aggressive bears.

Another argument against bear spray is the extreme cold often encountered in polar bear habitat that could potentially reduce the functionality of the spray. This is certainly valid in a place like Churchill but only becomes a factor in the coldest winter months as bear spray is rated to below freezing. It is unlikely that bear spray stored in a warm house or car and being carried in a coat pocket would cool down fast enough to be a problem, even in the middle of winter. (I plan to test this in the middle of winter so if anyone has extra cans please send them our way!)

In addition to adding bear spray to everyone’s polar bear tool kit, I believe that towns and communities like Churchill need to employ modern bear proofing strategies to reduce odors and food rewards that will attract and encourage problem bears to linger in town. It seems to me that it is almost impossible to stop bears from moving through Churchill but by removing the bear’s access to food rewards and trash there will be less incentive for them to explore the town. This is an extremely expensive proposition that would be a burden to small communities but given the amount Manitoba Conservation spends each year to chase and harass polar bears in and around towns like Churchill it should be a value proposition. Programs like this have been extremely effective in places with black and brown bears.

Climate change seems to dominate the polar bear conservation discussion with what could happen to polar bears in the future but that will be a moot point if we continue to kill them today. If we want to save polar bears we should start finding ways to better co-exist in order to maintain a healthier population that might be more likely to adapt and thrive in a changing climate. If, on the other hand, we stay on the path of unnecessarily destroying, capturing and disrupting polar bears today then they will most certainly be less prepared to survive in a world with more people and a warmer climate. Please help spread the word by sharing this article and writing to wildlife management officials in both the United States and Canada to let them know you want to live in a world with healthy, free polar bears.

Jason Williams
Our Expert

Jason Williams

Founder / Naturalist Guide
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