This summer my wife and I have a backpacking trip planned in Yosemite. As I started doing some research trying to plan and prepare for the trip I stumbled upon a strange Yosemite rule. Apparently bear spray is banned in the park being labeled as a weapon. This fact has made me uncomfortable. I have spent a lot of time in the backcountry, and have seen bears up close. While I have never been attacked by a bear, nor have I ever needed to use bear spray, I do carry it, every time I go into the backcountry. I don’t own or carry a gun (which is legal to carry in Yosemite) and so bear spray gives me peace of mind.
At first I didn’t think much about this rule. I figured I would politely refuse to obey. But I was recently reading an article in Backpacker Magazine written by Biologist and Bear Specialist Tom Smith. Tom has 21 years of studying human/bear encounters, and has published groundbreaking academic papers, like last year’s report comparing bear spray to guns. His studies have helped biologists—and backpackers—better understand bears. Tom said this about bruins of each species:
“What do I do if I don’t have bear spray with me?” a woman once asked me. I said, “Don’t not have that stuff!” It’s irresponsible not to protect yourself, but also not to give [the bears] an alternative option. She kept going, saying, “But please answer my question.” I said, “Let me phrase it this way: You are telling me that you’re riding in a truck, and refuse to wear a seatbelt. Then, you’re asking me: What’s the best way to be ejected through the windshield?” That’s when I started realizing that the primary piece of information is this: Don’t go out there without a deterrent. That, and commit to making noise appropriately.” [Source: THE TRUTH ABOUT BEARS: THE SKILLS Backpacker Magazine – February/March 2013]
I began to think maybe I shouldn’t just quitely disobey, maybe more people need to have this brought to their attention, and maybe the Park System needs a little enlightening. I contacted Tom personally and asked him about the Bear Spray ban in Yosemite. Here is what tom wrote back to me:
Once I heard that Yosemite National Park had banned spray, I couldn’t believe that to be correct. So I went to their web page and read their posted ban on bear spray (http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/weapons.htm) was correct. Beyond curious, I wrote the park asking why this would be. The park biologist wrote the following:
“In Yosemite National Park, the American black bear is the only bear species that calls this region home. Though still a wild animal that demands respect, we have no record of fatalities or maulings related to black bears in Yosemite. Bear spray is a weapon that has the tendency to be more of a safety and health risk for those carrying it than it is a useful tool in Yosemite. However, this is a tool that may be necessary and a recommendation for other National Parks that have other bear species in addition to the American black bear. With proper food storage and maintaining a safe distance from Yosemite bears, many negative issues are mitigated and our visitors remain relatively safe. We hope you find this helpful ”
National Park Service
Yosemite National Park
My [Tom’s] reply to Kristen was as follows:
“Thanks for the reply Kirsten and for sharing the NPS stance at YOSE. To me the logic of those who are prohibiting bear spray because no fatalities have occurred in the park is akin to saying ‘We’ve never had an automobile accident so why bother wearing seat belts?’ They would argue that seat belts wrinkle clothing, are uncomfortable, and there have been a few instances where those belts actually resulted in death. However, among bear biologists such as myself there is no debate about the nature of black bears: they have and do attack people. Had the woman at Great Smoky had bear spray in 2000 the chance is that she would be alive today.
Without spending hardly any time on the net I found this story:
The people in the story were knuckleheads for improperly storing food in the first place but such will always be the case. Many other instances that have nothing to do with food have occurred in California (e.g., Allena Hansen’s case which you’re likely familiar with). Odds are that it is just a matter of time until an unarmed person gets mauled, or worse, and the legal system will have a heyday with suing the government. Most such suits are in the millions. Another downside of not permitting spray is that persons who would prefer to carry it now carry guns, a much more dangerous option for both people and bears. We’ll have to sit back and see what unfolds but I fear that eventually bears will be bears and the park will be forced through the legal system to allow people to protect themselves for that extremely rare bear mauling. ”
Is it just me, or is the Park System dead wrong on this? Tom Smith seems to agree. Click on the links above…it isn’t just grizzly’s that attack. What is the harm in allowing a person to carry, simply carry bear spray? Why not just ban the discharge of bear spray or something else ridiculous. People will only use it if they feel threatened. Besides rules only keep honest people honest. If someone has ill intent involving bear spray, a rule is not going to stop them. And what is the penalty if you are caught with it in the park? What if you are attacked by a bear and illegally use bear spray to protect yourself? Will the park system then sue you? These are all questions I would like to have answered.
In the meantime I still plan to carry bear spray no matter where I am in the backcountry. I would rather suffer the consequences of breaking the rules than I (or a family member) wind up dead or paralyzed . But that’s just me. I would love to hear what you think. Please leave your comments below.