A Stinging Solution to Aggressive Bears

By Beacon Staff

Counter Assault sounds like a video game, but it’s really a serious business: the life and death, bear attack kind of business.

The Kalispell-based bear and self-defense pepper spray manufacturer Counter Assault is one of the largest companies of its kind in the United States, distributing its sprays worldwide to a wide range of people, from hikers in Glacier Park to soldiers in Iraq to rape defense counselors.

“We’re recognized as the leader in bear spray,” said Pride Johnson, who owns Counter Assault with his wife.

Counter Assault, which moved from Missoula to Kalispell in 1999, manufactures sprays of different potencies in canisters of different sizes. The company is best known for its bear spray, though all the sprays use the same fundamental compound: a thick liquid called oleoresin capsicum (OC) that is made from the extract of hot peppers. OC contains the spray’s active ingredient, capsaicin, which acts as an inflammatory agent that irritates the eyes, causes tears and restricts breathing. Bears, naturally, don’t like it.

Johnson gets his OC from a manufacturer in India. There, cayenne peppers are grown, picked and ground up. Then the capsaicin is extracted, processed and sent to Johnson’s Kalispell manufacturing center off of U.S. Highway 93. Johnson said he doesn’t use habaneros, famed for their heat, because they’re not commercially viable.

“It’s as thick as STP (motor oil),” he said of the final OC product, of which he has buckets in his factory.

Johnson is a chemist who took over Counter Assault in 2000 after serving for several years as president under Bill Pounds, the company’s founder. Pounds founded Counter Assault in Missoula in 1986 after Dr. Charles Jonkel of the University of Montana Border Grizzly Project conducted a six-year experiment on captive and free-range bears to find an appropriate non-lethal bear deterrent. The result: Counter Assault bear spray. The company got its first big break in 1989 when Exxon purchased thousands of bear deterrent canisters to protect its crews cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The Kalispell Police Department and Sheriff’s Department both use versions of Counter Assault’s OC-10 self-defense pepper spray. The self-defense canisters are smaller than the bear spray canisters. Not only do the larger bear canisters provide longer spraying capacity, but their formulas – the ratio of OC to various kinds of solvents and propellants – are also more potent. Johnson does not advocate the use of the smaller canisters for backcountry protection, though many people don’t know the difference.

On Oct. 6 two separate grizzly bear attacks occurred within 14 miles of each other north of Yellowstone National Park. In one of the attacks, a bow hunter used pepper spray to deter the bear. The grizzly charged again and a second hunter shot it twice with a .44 magnum pistol, killing it. A game warden investigating the attack afterward said that one or both of the men would have been mauled without the pepper spray, as it’s doubtful they would have had enough time to pull the pistol before the first charge.

Along with personal defense, military and bear spray products, Counter Assault makes a Canadian Dog Spray. Personal defense sprays are illegal in Canada so they are marketed as sprays to guard against dogs. Arguing that dogs are “pests,” the spray is labeled a “pesticide.”

“Ironically, everything can be a pest except for humans under EPA regulations,” Johnson said. “You can make the claim for rabbits, dogs, fungus.”

Counter Assault conducts the entire bottling, labeling, distributing and shipping process at its Kalispell center. The company also makes a bear resistant food storage container and a portable mesh electric bear fence that will soon be on the market. Johnson’s products are distributed throughout the U.S., Canada and Japan. The pepper spray industry is growing and Counter Assault is leading the way, Johnson said.

Though Counter Assault’s spray is made from cayenne peppers, Johnson said any spicy pepper can be used. Bear spray manufacturers look for a specific standardized heat unit. It might take more or less of a certain pepper to achieve that level, but ultimately all OC concoctions will be about the same. A jalapeno usually has a Scoville heat unit of about 3,000 to 5,000, while Johnson’s OC has a level of 3.8 million, he said.

“You could use a radish,” he said, “as long as it meets certain specifications.”

Counter Assault’s sprays are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. Only three other pepper spray manufacturers meet EPA requirements, which is a vital qualification, said Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator.

Servheen, who is based out of Missoula, has been in charge of coordinating research and management on grizzly bears in the lower 48 states for 26 years. He is pleased with the increase in bear spray sales. People hiking in bear country should always have bear spray readily accessible, he said.

“It’s just common sense,” Servheen said. “It’s so much better (than guns) because bears don’t get killed, people don’t end up wounding bears, you can carry it in national parks … and it’s a lot easier to deter a bear.”

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