Grizzly Bears, FOIA, Bird Hunting, Shotguns, and Close Range Defense

2009 Pheasant Hunter vs Grizzly, Bear Attack, Choteau, MT. 20 gauge 3 shots #6 bird shot, semi-auto shotgun not fully shouldered. picture of bear with shotgun wad between eyes. Image from FOIA request, public domain. Cropped, scaled and text added by Dean Weingarten.
2009 Pheasant Hunter vs Grizzly, Bear Attack, Choteau, MT. 20 gauge 3 shots #6 bird shot, semi-auto shotgun not fully shouldered. Picture of bear with shotgun wad between eyes. Image from FOIA request, public domain. Cropped, scaled and text added by Dean Weingarten.

U.S.A.-(AmmoLand.com)- Most conflicts between bears and humans are not reported to the authorities. Of those which are reported, only a small number are reported in the local or national media. Of those reported in the media, many do not include information about the firearms used.

A few months ago, Editor-in-Chief Fredy Rehl of AmmoLand News and I were discussing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests which might result in information of interest to AmmoLand News readers. I suggested FOIA requests be submitted to agencies dealing with bear attacks.

Fredy's persistence and hard work have borne fruit. A FOIA request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has resulted in a pdf file of over 1500 pages of forms and pictures. It represents a fraction of human and bear conflicts which have been reported to the authorities.

A brief study of the 1500+ pages shows they represent 59 cases where humans were involved in acts of defense of self and others against grizzly bears. The vast majority of the cases were not found in searches of local and national media.

The cases range from 2005 to 2016, all involve grizzly bears, and except for one case, barely across the border in Idaho, all were in Montana and Wyoming.

While this is only a fraction of all cases, it is a significant sample of self-defense cases. All of the cases involved firearms. A few involved firearms and bear spray, a couple involved pistols and bows. Of the firearm cases, about 13 were pure pistol defenses. There were five combination pistol and long gun defenses, as I recall.

Many of the stories are worth telling. About 10-15% were briefly covered in the media to one extent or another. Even in those, the official reports reveal details not reported in public media.

Here are three (two from the above-mentioned FOIA from USFWS and found here and here, with the more interesting one embedded below) which involved bird-hunting, shotguns, and grizzly bears. A birdshot load acts like a pre-fragmented slug when fired at 15 feet or less, out of most shotguns. Two of the incidents were covered in the media.

On the 12th of October 2009, near Choteau, Montana, a pheasant hunter had to shoot a grizzly in self-defense. He used his 20 gauge semi-auto loaded with #6 shot and dropped the bear a few feet from him. From choteaucantha.com:

In an interview after the shooting, West said, “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

West said he and his dog were following a lane or game trail through the brush and came to a dead end in shrubs and berry bushes that were well over his head. He surprised a radio-collared female grizzly who was bedded down for the day with her three cubs.

“It stepped on a limb or something and got my attention,” West said, adding that the sound of the breaking limb — a crash not a snap — alerted him to the bear’s presence about 22 feet from where he stood.

In a matter of seconds, he said, the sow took two big lunges toward him and he began firing his gun, a 20-gauge, semi-automatic shotgun with five rounds in the chamber. He fired three times.

“It fell right at my feet,” he said, adding that he didn’t even have time to shoulder his gun, but simply yanked it up and fired.

“There were no decisions to make,” he said. “It was just reflex.” His 12-year-old English setter, Josie, didn’t even have time to bark or growl as she stood beside him, he said, adding, “She didn’t have time to react.”

“I’m damn lucky to be alive,” he said. “That bear would have gotten me in one more bound.”

In a second incident on the 7th of November 2015, the hunter had a full choked Remington 870 12 gauge pump shotgun, loaded, as required when hunting migrant fowl, with only three shots. The event happened 5 miles South of Clark, Wyoming at about 1340 hours. The information is from the FOIA p. 351.

Full choke 870 with #4 steel shot on lake Creek Drainage. Fired three shots from the 12 gauge, starting at 20 feet away, full charge. Measured distance, 23 feet first shot. Bear not located. First shot rolled the bear, fired two more as the bear rolled and tumbled toward him. Pulled the trigger a fourth time, but the shotgun was empty. His young Chocolate lab then bit bear in the face. Then reloaded one shot from his pocket, and shot one more time as the bear was running away, with the dog chasing it. Had to use shock collar to get the dog to return.

Brown Bear and Cubs iStock-Milan Krasula 1210806488.jpg
Bear and Cubs, IM iStock-Milan Krasula

The last incident was given fairly wide publicity. It happened near an irrigation ditch on a farm 20 miles north of Choteau, Montana on 7th, November 2017. The hunter shot at the charging bear with a 12 gauge shotgun, wasting one shot as a warning shot. This is not advisable when you only have three shots in the gun. From Spokesmanreview.com:

“The female grizzly was in a patch of willows along the canal with her three young-of-the-year cubs,” reports Bruce Auchly, FWP spokesman in Great Falls.

“She emerged from the willows and charged the hunter’s dog. The hunter yelled at the bear, which turned and charged him. The hunter shot in the air once with his 12-gauge shotgun

“As the bear continued to charge, the 69-year-old hunter finally shot at the bear twice, hitting it in the chest and face. The final shot came when the animal was within 10 feet.

“The bear returned to the willows, where the cubs had remained. By the next morning Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials went into the willow patch and found the sow dead and the cubs were gone.”

Biologists determined the sow was 9 years old and weighed about 500 pounds.

When a bear charges you at close range, and you have a shotgun in your hand, ready to go, it is not advisable to drop the shotgun and grab at a can of bear spray.

All ordinary shotguns shooting common loads can kill grizzlies at very close ranges of 15 feet or less. Many shotgun hunters are used to shooting at fast-moving targets, often with snapshots.

More factual bear stories will be published from the FOIA treasure trove as time allows.

Grizzly Bears, FOIA, Bird Hunting, Shotguns, And Close Range Defense FOIA Data Article Attack 12th of October 2009


About Dean Weingarten:Dean Weingarten

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.


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MICHAEL J
MICHAEL J
20 days ago

Sprays just pisses off any self respecting bear!

Circle8
Circle8
23 days ago

Dean: Thank you for the update info. Always good to have.

Finnky
Finnky
23 days ago

I always read how birdshot is totally inadequate for home defense. Now I’m thinking that if it will stop a bear, it should suffice to stop a human attacker from similar (<20’) distances. Not first choice by any means but better than a 22. In first case three rounds of 20 gauge #6 killed the grizzly, would think effectiveness goes up for 12 gauge #4. I do note that in most cases it appears to have wounded and driven off the bears rather than killing them. Whether they die hours is irrelevant to self defense aspect, particularly if they get… Read more »

Happy Everafter
Happy Everafter
23 days ago

Always wondered the logic of a three round limit in some states.

Get Out
Get Out
22 days ago

Read this somewhere else and it makes sense. In the 1800s, duck hunters we’re limited to either a single barrel, ( single shot), or a double barrel shot gun, to hunt ducks with. When the pump shotgun, and the Semi auto shotgun came out, many of the old timers thought it wasn’t sporting to have 5 shots, and many of the duck clubs either banned their use or required that they have a plug in the magazine, to limit them to 3 shots. That thinking still exists today. The US fish and wildlife service and sportsmen, set forth the three… Read more »

FPV02
FPV02
23 days ago

Dean and Fredy: As one who lives in bear country, I just wanted to offer my thanks for this continuing series on bear self-defense, which invariably offers useful information.

Bill
Bill
23 days ago

So good to know!