Yosemite Bear Spray Ban – Why The Park System in Wrong

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 ” 

Kirsten Randolph
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.

13 thoughts on “Yosemite Bear Spray Ban – Why The Park System in Wrong”

  1. I think the park service is completely wrong in this instance. There is no harm in being prepared for the worst. Bringing a non-leathal detterant to help keep yourself and your family safe makes good sense and is way more responsible than bringing a gun. I have nothing against guns and am a gun owner, but when it comes to bear attacks history has proven that bear spray is more effective and easier to use effectivly than a gun. I cannot believe the park service.

  2. Wow, so few responses. 45 years encountering bears in Yosemite, I've been charged only twice by bears in over 50 encounters, had my pack destroyed once, and no bear spray. You would think I'd be a proponent of the National Park (Yosemite) ban on capsasin, but. I'm not. A proven defense, recommended by the NPS, yet forbidden in a park where guns are legal. The answer? Bureaucratic HUBRIS. Adapt or Perish.

  3. They don't want a bunch of nuts spraying bears with pepper spray in the middle of the night and trying to be vigilantes. Practice proper food storage, STAY AWAY FROM THE BEARS IF YOU SEE ONE, and make noise. No one has ever been hurt by a bear in Yosemite. Don't be so damn scared of everything. If you're worried about it that much, don't go there. Don't put your family member in a situation where they may be ripped apart by a bear. Go to another park where you can carry your bear spray.

  4. A friend and I were backpacking in the Tetons, far from any campground or road where people congregate. A young black bear "visited" us while we were making dinner. We chased it away as best we could, but it simply kept about 75 yards away from us. As soon as we went back to our cook area, it followed. We chased it away at least 3 times during dinner, and we ended up moving our tent farther away (even though it was >100 yards from our cook area). In the morning, I hiked over to where we'd meticulously hung our food bag (counterbalance done properly), and the bear was sitting directly under it. I went and got my friend, and she harassed the bear while I got the food. We broke camp and hiked a ways before having breakfast. This bear didn't attack, but if I'd been hiking alone it may have been bolder. All this to say that black bears, even when you do everything appropriately, aren't necessarily going to leave you alone. Anyone who thinks they will is either lucky or hasn't spent much time in the backcountry.

  5. This is really just a decision made by one district ranger/park manager. Yosemite has been so inundated with bears and people that they felt they had to lay down some rules. Is that the best move? Maybe, maybe not. However, I tend to trust the experts that are dealing with the resource every day of the working life to make good decisions. It's just like health. I'm not a doctor, but if my doctor tells me I need to exercise, I go to the gym. I don't question the opinion.

    That all said, I don't agree with the decision. I echo what was said, a rule isn't gonna stop someone from doing something nefarious so I'm not sure what purpose the rule serves.

    I don't carry spray or other weapons. I make noise, I deal with my food in a smart way in the backcountry.

  6. Bear spray is also not allowed in Seki where they have had bear attacks. I can remember a man being attacked near on the mist falls trail. The bear was euthanized. The place is full of bears.

  7. I'm a former park ranger with the federal government, and have spent a lot of time camping and backpacking in Yosemite. But I would not hesitate to carry bear spray in Yosemite, regardless of the ban. This is an irrational law and one the NPS may one day regret! I am normally fastidious about obeying laws in any park, but especially national parks because I know that the laws are well conceived to protect the resources and protect the people from themselves. Here are my reasons: !. The NPS is banking very heavily on visitors being conscientious about storing food because there will be no need for bear spray if people store food properly. Furthermore I believe that the NPS is reasoning that people will be less conscientious than they already are(or are not) about storing food IF they have bear spray. If this is indeed the case, the NPS will still have to enforce the the food storage laws anyway, even if people feel more confident in their personal safety with bear spray and neglect to store food properly. This is an unavoidable fact. 2. The rationale that there is no reason to have bear spray because there is no history of mailings or deaths, is the most absurd of all. If campers store food perfectly they can still be attacked because Yosemite black bears are no different than any other black bear that have attacked humans. The NPS will be sued if and when this happens, and the ban on bear spray will be a major nexus in this law suit. Does the NPS, the park superintendent, or biologist really want to face the parents, spouse, or loved one of someone seriously mauled or killed because bear spray is disallowed; 3. The fact that firearms are presently allowed in the park and bear spray is not is also absurd! Fire arms have been proven time and again to be less affective than bear spray as a deterrent to bear attacks. Therefore people will start to carry more firearms in the park, first of all because bear spray is disallowed, and mistakenly believing they are more effective than bear spray. It takes a powerful handgun, in the hands of a skilled operator to kill a bear, without being attacked in the process. When people start "packing" these large caliber weapons in the park, because bear spray is prohibited a whole new set of unfortunate circumstances will evolve. If the NPS does not want to believe that that will happen, just have a close look at the proliferation of hand guns in the US in general, and the resultant deaths from same. Bear spray when used properly if a far better alternative to a lot more guns in our parks!

  8. Ed,

    I totally agree! I spent 5 days in the Yosemite backcountry a couple of years ago. Carried bear spray the whole time. Never saw any sign of bear, but felt better about my division none the less. I will continue to carry anytime I go into the backcountry.

  9. Thanks Steve,
    Another comment on a different web site stated to the effect that 'it is my responsibility to protect myself and my family from any large predator attack while visiting a park that has bears'. I have spent a lot of time in other national parks(Glacier, Yellowstone, Banff, Jasper) that have both Brown and Black Bears and the number of people that didn't carry bear spray was appalling! So even if they did allow bear spray, not everybody is going to carry it. If they are attacked by either bear species they would be considered to have gone unprepared(and may qualify for the Darwin Award). But anybody in any bear country should be allowed to protect themselves with bear spray.

  10. At the end of the day, yes it’s illegal and though there haven’t been any attacks in Yosemite, it does not mean it won’t happen ever. Sure we practice all the necessary steps to mitigate an attack (noise, proper food storage, distancing when seen), we are at the mercy of mother earth and all of its inhabitants when we venture into her embrace. I myself have been charged and have had a bear come within two feet of me and did not have bear spray, however, I do carry it now, I’d would much rather have the fines over the possibility of losing my life or having permanent damage causing the inability to hike/backpack further.

  11. Thanks everyone! The Yosemite rule really bothered me. I bought bear spray for other wilderness areas and was shocked to learn of the stupid Yosemite rule. I have an upcoming vacation in Yosemite and I will definitely carry bear spray at the ready on treks off the valley floor. There’s an old saying: “I’d rather be tried by 12 than buried by 6”. That saying is so applicable for Yosemite wilderness treks. Wilderness is wilderness and wilderness know not about human laws. The law of survival is the only law worth respecting!

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