Red pepper spray, commonly used by people in bear country to ward off aggressive bear attacks, may actually attract brown bears if used improperly, according to preliminary research by a wildlife ecologist at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.
In research recently submitted for publication in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, USGS researcher Tom Smith emphasized that although the spray is a proven deterrent in some encounters with aggressive bears, red pepper spray is not a bear repellent when applied to objects such as tents, food containers, clothing or other personal belongings, "nor is it claimed to be by most manufacturers." In fact, noted Smith, pepper spray manufacturers normally suggest that the spray should be used preventively. Although it is not presently known exactly what the attracting agent in the red pepper spray is, the irritant oleoresin capsicum is the only ingredient common to all the sprays tested.
Smith said that although research has shown that red pepper spray is highly effective as a deterrent in aggressive grizzly and brown bear encounters when sprayed directly in a bear's eyes or nose, his pilot study shows that spray residues did attract brown bears when used in nonaggressive situations. Brown bear responses to red pepper spray-treated sites in his study ranged from mere sniffing to whole body rolling in the residues, an uncommon bear behavior.
The spray is often carried as a bear protection method by hikers, campers, biologists, rangers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The carrying of red pepper spray has been encouraged in some national parks where bears are common and firearms are prohibited. Some state wildlife and game agencies have also been encouraging the carrying of the spray in bear habitats.
Smith's investigations have found that "instances of people
inappropriately applying red pepper spray to objects in order to repel
Contact: Catherine Haecker
United States Geological Survey