Since Sarah Palin’s Alaska first aired this fall on The Learning Channel (TLC), I’ve been watching the show with a kind of morbid curiosity. I expected the worst, given the former governor’s extreme anti-wildlife stances such as gunning down wolves and bears from planes to boost game herds. So I was pleasantly surprised to find Palin promoting wildlife for the most part. That was, until Kate came along.
On a recent episode, Palin and special guest Kate Gosselin (of ”Kate Plus Eight” fame) decide to take their families camping. In preparing for the camping trip, Palin takes Gosselin to a training course to learn how to deal with bears in the wild.
Palin’s advice? Grab yer gun!
“If you are unarmed and you’re out in the wilderness, and perhaps you’re with children camping, well you’re putting yourself and your family in danger if you are not armed, if you are not prepared for a predator,” says Palin, before heading off to the shooting range for target practice.
As a bear aware educator in Missoula, I spend a lot of time fighting against fears and misconceptions about bears. Bears are big creatures that can be scary, which is part of the reason grizzlies had been wiped out in the lower 48 by the beginning of the 20th century. So I could only watch in horror as Palin perpetuated one of the biggest whoppers of them all.
First, serious bear encounters are still extremely rare—even more so in Montana than in Alaska.
Second, when recreating in bear country, guns are not the only way that a person can protect herself or her family. In some cases, taking a shot at a bear has even been shown to do more harm than good.
Understanding how to recreate in bear country without attracting bears and being aware of bear behavior is the best way to avoid encounters with bears in the first place. However, in the chance encounter with a bear, bear spray provides an effective, nonlethal method of protection that can often increase chances of survival.
It’s unfortunate—and potentially tragic—that the show made no mention of bear spray, especially considering TLC’s ability to reach a wide audience that may be learning about encounters with wild animals for the first time. Instead, Palin seemed intent on instilling fear in any mother with children who’s planning a trip into bear country. I imagined thousands of families planning a summer vacation to Yellowstone, where guns are now allowed, believing that the only option to protect their family while hiking or camping is to carry a gun at all times.
The truth is, when used correctly, bear spray is a highly effective way to deter a bear, and in some cases much safer for both the bear and the person being attacked than shooting a gun. As stated in the USFWS’s fact sheet on bear spray:
Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality—based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50 percent of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research – a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.
Though it’s probably best to take everything Palin says with a grain of salt, her encouragement for gunning down bears is both reckless and wrong. And in the lower 48, where grizzly bears are still protected under the Endangered Species Act, it’s also illegal to kill a grizzly bear unless your life is in immediate danger. More often than not, taking a shot at a bear will only provoke it. Correctly using bear spray, on the other hand, has the best chance of preserving life on both ends of the nozzle.