Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Do Air Horns make good bear deterrents?

A couple of years ago I came across an article suggesting that air horns might make for a good bear deterrent. To me this kind of made sense. My thoughts were that the high-decibel noise coming from an air horn might be more effective than bear spray because:

1) You don't have to worry about the direction of the wind (or rain)

2) You don't have to wait for the bear to get close enough before sounding the horn

3) Bears have much better hearing than humans, thus the noise would bother them even more than humans

4) When a problem bear is captured and then released, biologists/rangers always use lots of noise to scare the bear so that it stays away from humans in the future

Never hearing anyone else make a similar suggestion, I just assumed that it probably wasn’t a good idea. However, I proceeded to do a little research and found one person who claims to have successfully used an air horn to scare a bear away. This was from a personal website, so I wasn’t about to put my life on the line based on one website claim.

Thinking about this again recently, I decided to revisit the subject to see if there was anything new on to report on. In particular, were there any new studies providing hard evidence as to whether air horns actually work or not?

It seems that the idea of using air horns as a bear deterrent has actually gained some traction since I last visited this topic. However, I couldn’t find anything definitive. In other words, I couldn’t find any studies that have actually been conducted on black bears or grizzly bears to determine the effectiveness of air horns as a deterrent.

However, here’s what I did find:

In a fairly recent “Ask A Bear” column, Backpacker Magazine cited a test conducted on polar bears in the 70s that found that ultrasonic frequencies fine-tuned and blasted over large speakers repelled bears roughly 69% of the time.

This was the only study that I could find that was even remotely related to my question, but it really doesn’t answer it. One, the test was conducted on polar bears, and two, air horns weren’t used in the test. I should point out, though, that the column also states that bear guru Stephen Herrero thinks that an ultrasonic bear repellent is worthy of further study and testing.

The Get Bear Smart Society, a Canadian organization that works to educate the general public as well as government agencies across North America, believes that air horns can be effective when used in conjunction with human dominance techniques to move a bear off (as mentioned in their A guide to non-lethal management techniques).

On their website, they state:

Noise deterrents work by making a loud, unpleasant sound that causes the bear to be uneasy and move away. Noise deterrents are advantageous if you are a long distance away from the bear. Furthermore, they cause neither harm nor injury to the bear when correctly used.

In some cases, noise deterrents do not work either because the bear has habituated to human noise or because it has no natural fear of the noise. For example, a habituated bear is very unlikely to respond to a vehicle siren if officers remain in the vehicle. Unlike human dominance techniques which speak the language of the bear, a bear may have to be taught that noise deterrents are followed by an unpleasant or negative situation. However, once a bear makes the association, an officer may only have to cock his shotgun to make the bear leave

I found several governmental websites in the United States and Canada that offered similar advice. For example, the Kenai Fjords National Park website states that “It is a good idea to carry a non-lethal deterrent such as an air horn or pepper spray in case of a surprise encounter…”

As a result of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published Deterrence Guidelines in the Federal Register, which states that:

These guidelines…are appropriate for safely and nonlethally deterring polar bears from damaging private and public property and endangering the public. The use of commercially available air horns and other similar devices designed to deter wild animals…may be effective in deterring bears while causing no lasting or permanent harm to individual animals.

The Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science at the University of Alberta has this advice on their Bear Safety Information page:

Make lots of noise, especially when traveling in dense vegetation. Sing, shout, or talk loudly. You can carry portable air horns, cans of rocks. (Please note that bear bells are not effective – they do not make enough noise to warn a bear that you are approaching. You need to be loud so the bear can hear you coming!) Remember that the noise you make can be masked by loud natural sounds such as the wind or water. Therefore it is possible that the noise you make can go unnoticed by a bear whose attention is focused on feeding. You must make every attempt not to surprise a bear. In areas of loud natural noise, be louder!

However, they do warn that air horns can sometimes provoke a bear into attacking.

The Alberta Sustainable Resource Development website makes these points about deterring a bear:

• Noisemakers are best used to deter a bear that is at a distance – one that sees you and continues to approach or one that’s heading to your camp or settlement.

• Before using noisemakers, be sure to assess the situation. Make sure the surroundings are clear of people and the bear has an obvious way out. A bear that’s been startled by a noisemaker may not be able to avoid groups of people as it flees the area.

• Remember, the noisemaker may not immediately deter the bear, especially if the bear has had previously experience with noise deterrents. Also, noisemakers may not prevent the bear from returning to the area.

• Bear spray is best used when you need to deter a bear at close range.
The bottom line, I guess, is that there’s no 100% safe and reliable way to deter a bear. Each bear has a different personality, and each encounter is essentially a unique situation. In addition to air horns and pepper spray, high pitched whistles are also known to be of help in some situations.

Your best bet is to make sure you make a lot noise while hiking in bear country, and to practice bear awareness and avoidance techniques.

If anyone has access, or knows of any definitive studies that have been conducted with air horns, please let us know and/or provide a link in the comments section.

Hiking in


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