A bowhunter in New York's southern tier moves stealthy toward his treestand before sunrise. He carefully places each foot before the other, making only the occasional crunch as his feet fall on dry leaves. He's as scent free as possible, carrying only his bow with its arrows stored safely in its quiver.
He turns off the main trail, making the final approach to his treestand. That's when the light from his cap-light illuminates the eyes of a surprised black bear just 40 yards away. His body freezes and his mind races. There he stands under equipped, ill prepared, and in very real danger.
This year, NYS expanded the areas where hunters can tag a black bear. Populations are on the rise and they're appearing on more trail cameras around the state. Typically, Black Bears are not aggressive and they want to bump into us no more than we want to bump into them while on the ground. Still, since more of NYS is now “Bear Country”, a quiet bowhunter can certainly find themselves surprising a bear without the benefit of a firearm — something that is illegal for bowhunters to carry in New York State.
This is of concern, particularly in light of the recent, fatal bear attack in nearby NJ. Five hikers, undoubtedly walking normally, rather than a hunter's patient pace, were followed by an agitated black bear. When the hikers panicked and ran, the bear charged, killing a hiker.
The NJ tragedy prompted me to ask the NYS DEC if they are even discussing the possibility of allowing bowhunters to carry firearms. I had expected the DEC to be considering either hand guns with standard rounds or the non-lethal “Banger” rounds designed to scare bears. Surprisingly, I was pointed to a different solution via two published studies.
According to Law enforcement agents in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pepper spray is more effective at deterring bears than firearms. Based on their investigations since 1992, persons encountering Grizzlies who defend themselves with firearms, suffered injury about 50% of the time. However, those who defended themselves with pepper spray escaped injury “most of the time”. *
Although its unclear what the exact value of “most of the time” is, another study found that pepper spray was effective at halting aggressive bear behavior 92% of the time. **
By citing these studies, it's clear to me that NYS would rather see bowhunters carry pepper spray than pistols as a bear deterrent tool. If you were hoping for pistols, don't hold your breath.
Pepper spray cans may be carried in chest holsters over your clothes, making it possible to spray the can without having to remove it from the holster. Most cans of pepper spray should spray at least 40 feet and a 1-second burst should deter a bear at that distance. If the bear is closer – 10 feet or less – experts say to empty the can in the bear's face and pray.
* Living With Grizzlies, Fact Sheet No. 8, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region
** April 2008 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management by bear researcher Thomas Smith of Brigham Young University