The grizzly took Jerry Ruth by surprise, bursting from thick brush and biting his jaw almost completely off .
On the ground and barely able to see, Ruth grabbed his .41 Magnum-caliber revolver and started shooting. The third bullet pierced the bear’s heart and spinal cord, killing it from 25 feet.
“I’m glad I was armed with a firearm and I’m glad I was able to shoot straight,” said Ruth, attacked last July 19 a couple miles from his home not far from Yellowstone National Park.
Ruth’s gun quite possibly saved his life. It also provided fodder for a long-standing debate about whether a gun or bear spray is better in fending off a grizzly attack.
And if that sounds like an esoteric discussion, it 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 — 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’ve killed 10 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’s only had substantial numbers of grizzlies for the past decade or so.
Ruth was attacked not long after he and his wife moved to Clark in remote northwestern Wyoming. He said the 275-pound female grizzly, which had three cubs, attacked while he was hiking with a friend.
“It was like walking down a hallway and somebody jumping out of a doorway,” said Ruth, who’d just retired after 28 years as a Baltimorearea police officer.
Ruth counted on his experience and training with guns to ensure that the bear, after its initial attack, wouldn’t come back and finish him off, said Mark Bruscino, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department chief bear biologist who investigated the mauling.
“Using a firearm in that situation was completely justifiable,” Bruscino said. “He probably could not have lived through another thrashing like the first goaround.”
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.
Bear biologist Tom Smith said he’s “absolutely concerned” about grizzlies dying unnecessarily.
An assistant professor at Brigham Young University, Smith used to work at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, a place famous for drawing large numbers of grizzlies that feed on spawning salmon.
Smith said tourists at Katmai often would tell him they’d been charged — but that after reviewing video footage they provided as evidence, he never saw a grizzly charging, just bears walking about and minding their own business.
“The point is, people can’t read these animals at all,” Smith said.