ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

USGS Cautions Proper Use of Pepper Spray
to Avoid Bear Attacks

This is a press release from the USGS Alaska Science Center

      Red pepper spray, commonly used by people in bear country to ward off aggressive bear attacks, may actually attract brown bears if used improperly, according to preliminary research by a wildlife ecologist at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.

Alaska grizzly bear rolling in pepper-sprayed grass       In research recently submitted for publication in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, USGS researcher Tom Smith emphasized that although the spray is a proven deterrent in some encounters with aggressive bears, red pepper spray is not a bear repellent when applied to objects such as tents, food containers, clothing or other personal belongings, "nor is it claimed to be by most manufacturers." In fact, noted Smith, no pepper spray manufacturers normally suggest that the spray should be used preventively. Although it is not presently known exactly what the attracting agent in the red pepper spray is, the irritant oleoresin capsicum is the only ingredient common to all the sprays tested.

      Smith said that although research has shown that red pepper spray is highly effective as a deterrent in aggressive grizzly and brown bear encounters when sprayed directly in a bear's eyes or nose, his pilot study shows that spray residues did attract brown bears when used in nonaggressive situations. Brown bear responses to red pepper spray-treated sites in his study ranged from mere sniffing to whole body rolling in the residues, an uncommon bear behavior.

      The spray is often carried as a bear protection method by hikers, campers, biologists, rangers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The carrying of red pepper spray has been encouraged in some national parks where bears are common and firearms are prohibited. Some state wildlife and game agencies have also been encouraging the carrying of the spray in bear habitats.

      Smith's investigations have found that "instances of people inappropriately applying red pepper spray to objects in order to repel bears are not uncommon." His research suggests that red pepper spray used in this manner may actually "promote" attraction to spray-treated sites or objects by brown bears.

      "If my study observations hold true elsewhere, then red pepper spray residues on the spray canisters, field gear, or on foliage near camps or other human high-use areas may provide sites of interest to brown bears and consequently risk human safety," Smith warned. In back country areas where hikers and researchers may use the same location for extended times, continuing indiscriminate use of the spray could cumulatively create a potentially harmful situation for the next person who uses the campsite, Smith said. "We are concerned that if red pepper spray is used in this inappropriate manner, it may attract bears, result in property damage, or a confrontation."

      The impetus for Smith's study came after he observed a brown bear rolling vigorously in beach gravel that had been inadvertently sprayed with red pepper spray five days previously. A surprised Smith watched bears on their backs, paws skyward, vigorously rubbing their heads and back in the red pepper-sprayed gravel. Before this observation, Smith had never seen brown bears behave in such an unusual manner.

      Smith noted that red pepper spray is a stable, weather-resistant compound that apparently does not lose its attractant, or irritant, properties quickly. This suggests "that even a single discharge has the potential to attract brown bears for a significant amount of time," he said.

      Smith's preliminary study involved spraying red pepper on gravels along the Kulik River in Katmai National Park and then observing brown bear responses to red pepper residues from a blind. He recorded both normal and abnormal bear behavior at or near these study sites. In his pilot study, Smith said that brown bears approached the treated sites 40 times, with the spray eliciting interest more than 50 percent of the time and no response 40 percent of the time. However, Smith noted that in all instances where bears showed no response to the treated soils, strong winds were observed that may have "whisked the scent directly away from the bears, calling into question whether they could have scented the spray at all."

      Other unusual brown bear behavior Smith recorded on the sprayed sites included numerous instances of sniffing, pawing, licking, rubbing their heads in the soil, and rolling on the sites in a manner similar to cats rolling in catnip. Before this study, Smith had spent more than 750 hours observing brown bears at Kulik River. "During that time," he said, "I had never seen bears rubbing their heads on the ground, pawing and licking soils, or rolling on their backs."

      These novel behaviors, said Smith, arise directly from exposure to red pepper spray-treated soils, and "hence my concern about indiscriminate or improper use of these sprays in bear country."

      "In no cases," said Smith, "were bears seen to be deterred from, or actively avoiding, red pepper spray-treated sites. These observations," he added, "raise serious concerns regarding the appropriate use of red pepper spray and identify a need to educate users as to potentially harmful side effects of their indiscriminate use as a repellent agent."

      Scent, of course, is what bears rely on most to locate food in their environment, which is why campers and other backwoods users are encouraged to carefully rid their tents and sleeping areas of articles that might smell, including toothpaste, food and soap. Unfortunately, said Smith, red pepper spray, besides being an effective deterrent when sprayed in a bear's face, is also essentially "scent in a can" that bears may be attracted to.

      Smith urged that until further research is conducted, people who carry red pepper spray in bear country should not test-fire newly purchased red pepper spray near camps or other human high-use areas. As an additional precaution, Smith advises that once fired, the canisters should not be kept in or near the tents of sleeping persons because of the possibility that red pepper spray residues on canister nozzles may attract bears.

      Smith's work has been reviewed by other bear biologists in the U.S. Department of the Interior and submitted for publication in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. In addition, his observations have been anecdotally supported by other researchers in bear habitat. Smith said USGS will conduct more research on red pepper spray and bears this year. Smith's future research will focus on discovering just how attractive red pepper spray is to bears, the distance at which a bear can scent the red pepper spray, and if a bear might be attracted to a canister that has been fired and which has some spray residue on its exterior. Smith's preliminary work showed that bears were picking the scent up from more than 75 meters away.

      As the nation's largest water, earth and biological science and civilian mapping agency, the USGS works in cooperation with more than 2000 organizations across the country to provide reliable, impartial, scientific information to resource managers, planners, and other customers. This information is gathered in every state by USGS scientists to minimize the loss of life and property from natural disasters, contribute to the sound conservation, economic and physical development of the nation's natural resources, and enhance the quality of life by monitoring water, biological, energy, and mineral resources.