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A well placed bullet might stop an aggressive grizzly, but not shooting could be just as effective in protecting yourself in bear country, according to a new study by Brigham Young University wildlife biologists.

Longtime bear biologist Tom Smith and colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of close-quarter bear-human conflict in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 in which a firearm was involved. They found the gun made no statistical difference in the outcome of these encounters, which resulted in 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities

"It really isn't about the kind of gun you carry. It's about how you carry yourself," said Smith, lead author of the study published online in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

"Guns are great, but for a gun to be great you have to be very, very good. No one ever practices on a 500-pound animal charging at you through the brush at 10 meters. They practice on paper targets," he added. "That's a big, big difference from being in the moment of stress."

While Smith said his data set was not perfect, it did tease out some surprising findings. For instance, handguns slightly outperformed long guns, resulting in a positive outcome (meaning the gun stopped the bear's aggression) 84 percent of the time versus 76 percent.

"That's surprising because some believe that handguns have no place in bear safety," Smith said. "But they are much more maneuverable and carried more accessibly. A majority of bears go to extreme lengths to avoid people. When an encounter occurs, it is in close quarters and poor visibility. They are on their back shooting the bear in the mouth."

The findings could have policy implications as more people carry firearms into national parks under a May 2010 rule change that lifted the National Park Service's long-standing gun ban. In previous statistical studies, Smith has demonstrated that pepper-spray is effective in deterring aggressive bears.

"Out of 176 incidents, there were only three injuries, just scratches," Smith said of his pepper spray findings. And no bears died.

Experts say prevention is the best protection — traveling in groups, avoiding areas of poor visibility, making noise as appropriate and not startling mothers with cubs.

"Once a bear charges, the odds of a successful outcome is seven times less likely, regardless of whether or not you have a firearm," said co-author Randy T. Larsen, a BYU professor of plant and wildlife sciences. Co-authors include Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary, Kathryn R. Johnson of the Alaska Science Center, and BYU undergraduate Cali Strong Layton.

Smith said their findings indicate black bears are 20 times less likely to attack than grizzlies

"Bears are not at all the same. For a black bear, the best defense is run away," Smith said. But the best way to avoid a run-in with a grizzly is to make sure the animal hears you before it sees you, because they are more likely to charge if they are surprised.

"I don't have a bear brain, but I can tell you it's not a thinking decision. It's evolved from a long history of bear-bear interaction. When we trigger that, they are full on us," Smith said.

In about one-fifth of the encounters he studied for the most recent study, the gun was not fired for various reasons. In some cases, the person couldn't deploy the weapon quickly enough, it jammed, or the person opted not to shoot. Whatever the reason, not shooting the bear saves paperwork and effort since Alaska law requires those who kill grizzlies to skin the animal and file a report with state wildlife officials.

Of bears and bullets

Researchers at Brigham Young University who analyzed bear-human conflicts in Alaska found no statistical support that guns affected the outcome. Armed people faced the same level of risk for mauling, whether or not they fired their weapon.