To Keep and Bear Arms

Four years after a federal gun law triggered visitors’ ability to carry loaded guns in national parks, two recent shooting incidents bring the scope of the measure into Glacier’s sights

By Tristan Scott

The list of reasons to carry a gun in Glacier National Park is a short one, and may have been exhausted in the span of a few weeks this summer.

In separate incidents on July 26 and again on Aug. 10, two firearms were discharged within park boundaries – the first by a hiker shooting at what he reported to be a charging bear that was undeterred by a blast of pepper spray, and the second in an effort to summon help for an injured hiker on Mount Siyeh.

Grizzlies are the undisputed bosses of the backcountry, and have killed 10 people in Glacier and five in Yellowstone National Park in the past century. Those parks average one grizzly attack with injuries a year, a figure that pales in comparison to the number of injuries sustained by visitors in climbing falls and other accidents.

Still, nothing seems to summon the urge to carry a gun in Glacier National Park more than the specter of a grizzly encounter.

The number of grizzlies has rebounded since the 1970s and, although they still are listed as a threatened species, it’s no longer rare for one loping along the roadside to jam up tourist traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road, nor is it uncommon for a hiker to encounter a bear on the trail.

But incidents involving guns and grizzlies in Glacier have been rare, even though it has been legal since 2010 for visitors to carry firearms in national parks – so long as they abide by state laws. It remains illegal to discharge one within Glacier.

The July 26 incident, in which a Texas man shot at and is believed to have wounded a bear he told officials charged him, remains under investigation, according to park spokesperson Sarah Grieb.

The Aug. 10 incident, Grieb said, involved a father and son from Alabama who were climbing down from Mount Siyeh when a 200-pound boulder dislodged from a field of scree and loose rock and caromed off the younger hiker, knocking him down and causing him to tumble 200 feet.

His injuries include lacerations to his head and chin, and, according to Grieb,  “in an attempt to summon aid, the father waved his arms while yelling” before he “fired one gunshot toward a solid surface to indicate that an emergency was occurring.”

Nearby hikers reported hearing both the yelling and the gunshot, and park personnel met the injured party on the trail before the junction between Siyeh Pass Trail and Piegan Pass Trail. Two Bear Air transported them to West Glacier, where an ambulance took them on to North Valley Hospital in Whitefish.

In this case, cracking off a round from a handgun seems to have worked to draw attention, although the yelling may have sufficed.

It remains unclear, however, if the firearm used in the former case was an effective deterrent, and park officials investigating the incident remain concerned that an injured and agitated bear (the hiker did not know if it was a grizzly or black bear) would cause other conflicts.

The National Park Service, along with state and federal wildlife agencies, highly recommends the use of pepper spray – a pressurized can of hot-pepper oil – rather than guns when faced with a bear, noting several studies proving the spray to be more effective than a bullet in diverting or stopping a charging bear.

Retired Glacier Park Ranger Gary Moses is a product ambassador for Counter Assault pepper spray, which is specifically designed to repel a bear that is charging or attacking. Moses said he believes the increased popularity of bear spray among hikers through the years has caused a downturn in bear attacks because the animals are adopting a learned response – something they don’t have the opportunity to do if they are shot and killed.

“I firmly believe from my experience that bears are learning to stay a little bit more wary of people,” Moses said. “The beauty is that when they are sprayed with bear spray they learn something and they pass it on.”

Prior to 2010, park visitors were required to keep their guns unloaded and out of reach, such as concealed in the trunk. But the 2010 law allows visitors to take loaded guns anywhere, so long as they’re not prohibited by state or federal law.

Records show that in the years leading up to the new law, between 2005 and 2009 – when Glacier Park visitation totaled nearly 10 million people – only three visitors were injured by grizzlies. No one was killed.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack.” The agency adds that a review of bear attacks shows injuries are more frequent and more severe when a gun was used, than when spray was deployed.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks concurs, warning people that “if you are armed, use a firearm only as a last resort. Wounding a bear, even with a large-caliber gun, can put you in far greater danger.”

For one thing, shooting a gun in a national park is still against the law. For another, killing a grizzly, except to defend yourself or someone else, is a federal crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a $25,000 fine, and killing wildlife in a national park is a separate crime altogether.

Previously, national parks were no-gun zones, but even now that state gun rules apply, incidents at Glacier are relatively infrequent.

On June 12, 2010, a woman was hiking on the Sun Road near Logan Creek when she encountered what she claimed was an aggressive whitetail deer. When the deer continued to approach her, she discharged pepper spray, firing the canister toward the animal but apparently  was standing too far away.

So, she pulled out a .357 magnum handgun and fired it into the ground away from the animal to scare it. The deer hopped into the bushes, but still stayed fairly close.

She was not cited, but was given a written warning, told that discharging a firearm in the park is illegal unless a person could expect “imminent” danger.

Russ Wilson, chief of regulations and special park uses for the National Park Service, said he receives a query about firearms in the park from the public every couple of weeks or so.

“I generally refer them to the firearms information on the web page of the park they are interested in and advise them to contact the park’s chief ranger if they still have questions,” he said, adding that the new law has not created any significant burden for him.

Park spokesperson Denise Germann said a poaching incident on the park’s east side a few years ago, which included the discharge of a firearm, resulted in a citation.

No other incidents have included a formal citation.

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