PRAY, MONT. — When Joe Platt decided to go hunting north of Yellowstone National Park two weekends ago, the Texas sportsman didn't plan on shooting a grizzly bear. His intended quarry was an elk.
But like at least seven other big game hunters in the Yellowstone region this autumn, Mr. Platt has joined the ranks of those who claim they had to kill a federally protected bruin in self defense.
With weeks still remaining in the general hunting season, wildlife officials are worried the grizzly death toll could climb higher, setting back the recovery of a famous bear population that 15 years ago was spiraling toward extinction.
One remedy, however, may not be far away - and a growing number of hunters are signing on. Experts say a powerful substitute for bullets is the same product women tote to fend off male attackers: red pepper spray.
Packaged in aerosol-like canisters with a derivative of spicy red peppers used in cooking, pepper spray is designed to thwart attackers by subduing their vision and breathing. And despite the controversy generated in northern California last week when police used the spray on protesters, both police departments and wildlife biologists still endorse it because, in most instances, the effect is decisive but temporary.
That's good for charging grizzlies, which are given a second chance at life and hunters who could face prosecution for killing a protected species.
Although the product already is widely used by hikers in national parks synonymous with grizzlies such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali and Canada's Banff, the hunting community has been slower to embrace the spray.
But the change is coming. Bill Pounds manufactures the leading pepper spray on the market. During the past decade, his company, Bushwhacker Backpack of Missoula, Mont., has sold 60,000 canisters of bear spray alone. More than a dozen other companies have also entered the market.
"There's no argument that red pepper spray is an exceptional alternative to a firearm," says Mr. Pounds, who hired bear researchers to test his product. "It has a phenomenal rate of effectiveness. Let's face it, you can't always say that about a gun."
Indeed, renowned bear researcher Stephen Herrero at the University of Calgary was a quiet skeptic of pepper spray for years, but then he examined the statistics. Of 88 bear attacks he examined where pepper spray was used, he found the product worked as an effective deterrent in 86.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which has investigated five grizzly fatalities this fall and two dozen others over the last decade, may make carrying pepper spray a mandatory requirement for hunters roaming national forests lands outside Yellowstone.
In a region with only a few hundred grizzlies, the loss of even small numbers of breeding females from a population can have cumulative, long-term repercussions, says Louisa Willcox, project coordinator of Wild Forever, a conservation effort devoted to grizzly recovery in the lower 48 states.
For the past four consecutive years, deaths of female grizzlies due primarily to encounters with hunters have surpassed the toll that the federal government says is allowable to keep the population growing at a net gain. Half of the grizzlies shot this year have been females.
"It's been a rough year," says Mark Haroldson, interim leader of the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which tracks the grizzly population.
Officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over endangered species, and game wardens from Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho say one problem is that hunters are often too zealous with their guns.
Many bear attacks turn out to be "bluff charges" in which no contact is made with humans, and some, including one this season, occur because a hunter gets in between a female bear and her cubs. "A lot of us are outraged - conservationists, biologists, even hunters - because it appears most of these incidents were preventable with pepper spray," says Ms. Willcox.