Law Now Allows Guns In National Parks

Yellowstone News, Bear Hunting Magazine

Grizzly attacks over the last few years have provided fodder for a long-standing debate about whether a gun or bear spray is better in fending off a grizzly attack. And this debate has intensified with a new federal law allowing people to carry guns in national parks.

The advent of the new law focused not on bears but on Second Amendment rights. Even so, three national parks that have high numbers of grizzly bears; Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, are waiting to see what will happen once hikers and campers begin venturing into the backcountry in the weeks ahead.

"Experience shows that putting firearms and grizzly bears in the same place ends up with dead grizzly bears," said Steve Cain, senior biologist for Grand Teton National Park.

"Time will tell. Of course there is the potential for unintended consequences; injury to bears, injury to people," said Glacier spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt.

Grizzlies are the undisputed bosses of the backcountry in the three parks. They have killed ten people in Glacier and five in Yellowstone in the past century. Those parks average one grizzly attack with injuries a year. Grand Teton has had only a handful of attacks, and no deaths, but it has only had substantial numbers of grizzlies for the past decade or so.

Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are home to roughly 1,300 grizzlies. Their numbers have rebounded since the 1970s and, although grizzlies still are listed as a threatened species, it is no longer rare for one lolling roadside to jam up tourist traffic in Grand Teton, Yellowstone or Glacier.

Yet park rangers in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier are still telling visitors that a pressurized can of hot-pepper oil, bear spray, is their best defense.

Their reasoning? Studies show that in most cases, putting a cloud of bear spray in a grizzly's face works better than trying to stop a moving 400-pound animal with a perfectly placed bullet.

"You've got to be a really good shot with a gun," said Yellowstone bear biologist Kerry Gunther. "That's the beauty of bear spray. You don't really have to aim it. All you have to do is pull it and pull the trigger."

Bear spray, of course, also happens to be better for bears. Park visitors used to have to keep their guns unloaded and well out of reach, such as in the trunk. The new law allows visitors to take loaded guns anywhere they are not prohibited by state or federal law.

Bear biologist Tom Smith said he's "absolutely concerned" about grizzlies dying unnecessarily. Smith has evaluated the efficacy of bear spray in reported aggressive and nonagressive encounters in Alaska between 1985 and 2006. He found that bear spray stopped grizzlies in 46 of 50 cases, or 92 percent of the time.

Bear spray stopped charging grizzlies 12 out of 14 times, a success rate of 85 percent. The other two times a grizzly charged, one person was deeply scratched and the other was spared when the grizzly moved off after stopping just a few feet away.

"Simply put, if you're just a hiker, you're far better off with the nonlethal deterrent like bear spray. The numbers just speak for themselves," Smith said.

It's also more practical, Smith said: In thick trees and brush where a grizzly could surprise you, hiking with a lightweight can in your hand with the safety off is much easier than holding an unholstered large-caliber handgun.

Shooting a grizzly in a national park will not go without inquiry, unless it is an obvious case of saving your life or someone else's. For one thing, shooting a gun in a national park is still against the law. For another, killing a grizzly, except to defend yourself or someone else, is a federal crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a $25,000 fine. On top of that, killing wildlife in a national park is a separate crime altogether.

"It gets fairly complex, but it's safe to say these things will be investigated," said Tim Reed, chief ranger for Yellowstone.

In the vast national forests surrounding the three parks, elk and deer hunters encounter and kill grizzlies frequently. In 2008, hunters killed eight grizzlies in self-defense near Yellowstone. But hunters move stealthily off-trail, more or less ready to shoot, something hikers typically do not do.

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