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Accidental Bear Spray Discharge Forces Evacuation of Visitor Center at Grand Teton National Park


The brand of bear spray involved in the situation is unknown, so this photo of an older canister is for illustrative purposes only. Photo by tsuda via flickr and Creative Commons.

A popular series of TV commercials asks "What's in your wallet?" but sometimes it's more important to remember what you're carrying next to your wallet. That was certainly the case recently at Grand Teton National Park when a park visitor accidentally set off a canister of bear spray inside a visitor center. 

Bear spray has a proven track record as a defensive measure against bear attacks, but the recent miscue provided a reminder about the importance of following the instructions for safely carrying such products. The apparently accidental discharge of pepper spray forced the evacuation of the visitor center at Colter Bay earlier this month.

According to a park report, as a ranger was greeting visitors for a morning program in the visitor center auditorium a man sat down on what was apparently an unsecured canister of bear spray. This caused the can to discharge its contents of highly irritating spray into the room.

The active ingredient in most bear spray products is capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, similar to the pepper spray carried by law enforcement officers—but with a higher percentage of the irritant.

The ranger immediately recognized what had happened and directed all the occupants of the room to the emergency exits.

Park emergency personnel were notified of the incident since the building’s air handling systems carried the residual pepper spray into the main lobby. The first emergency units to arrive found approximately 20 employees and visitors in the main lobby coughing and experiencing other side effects from the pepper spray.

Incident command was established and the building was evacuated. While emergency medical staff evaluated both employees and visitors, structural fire personnel in full Personal Protective Equipment began ventilating the building. All the affected individuals declined medical treatment. 

Visitor services were continued through the rest of the day at portable tables in front of the visitor center while cleanup was begun by facility management staff. That cleanup, however, proved to be a challenging task.

The irritant in the spray is dispersed in an oil-based aerosol that clings to any surface it contacts, including vinyl, plastics, carpeting, clothing and human skin. An additional challenge involved the merchandise in the building's gift shop. The cooperating association staff bagged and sealed many soft items, such as t-shirts and stuffed animals, for decontamination at a later date.

It's unknown whether it was a case of guilty conscience or simple panic, but the visitor who discharged the bear spray ran from the room and building. Rangers were unsuccessful in locating the man, but statements from the interpreter in the room and other visitors indicate that the discharge was accidental. The visitor center was reopened the following day.

The incident is a good reminder that anyone who purchases a product such as bear pepper spray needs to read—and heed—the instructions. A video from Yellowstone National Park on use of bear pepper spray notes that "a good bear pepper spray will have a safety clip on the trigger. This prevents accidental discharge." You can view that video at this link, or just read the transcript here.


That's what I call a Boo Boo with the Yogi spray

Or as Homer would have said - "Doh!"...

He was probably running because his behind was on fire. :>)

I remember being at the Colter Bay Visitor Center waiting for someone. I overheard a group of rangers talking about the bear spray that they normally carried. One ranger said that he thought he'd me more likely to need to use it against a person than a bear.

I would note that the other difference *besides concentration) about bear spray compared to personal defense pepper spray is that the sizes are typically very large. I know in California, laws state that private citizens aren't allowed to possess any kind of "tear gas" (including pepper spray) container that's larger than 2.5 oz. Anything larger than that has to be considered an "economic poison" (a term I didn't understand very well) to be legal for civilians to possess. I looked it up, and I found out that means some sort of pesticide, which I suppose is technically what bear spray is.

(ed. note: comment referring to the brand name of the product in the illustration has been removed for purposes of fairness to the company. The specific product involved in this incident was not known, and this was a case of operator error, not a problem with the product itself.)

Not smarter than the average bear it seems.

Bear spray in the US is regulated by the EPA as a pesticide and that is what regulations it comes under in all 50 states. EPA Regulation ensures that the product in the can is what the company says it is, with personal protection sprays, the companies can say anything they want to, or put anything in the can and call it spray.  By law to be a bear spray, it has to have a certain amount of active ingridiant1.0 to 2.0 percent in the can as well as be a certain size 7.9oz

Yes, that can in the picture is an old can with a Japanese Glow in the dark sticker.  In this type of case, brand does not matter, it would have made a mess in the visitors center no matter which kind was being carried.  Many people had a very uncomfortable day that day.

No mention is made of the lovely American Indian artifacts in the adjacent museum. They are all (or very nearly all) in glass cases, but I assume the cases are ventilated in some matter. It would be a terrible shame if all that beautiful beadwork and so on were damaged.  Unlike t-shirts and post-cards, they're irreplacable.

I do not carry my bear spray in the visitors centers nor any of the stores or other buildings I might visit when I am in the parks, I would suggest to anyone take your bear spray off before entering the buildings in the park, it is a sure fire way to prevent this type of incident happening.  I also hope there was no damage done to the artifacts there, they could be cleaned with care and time, but lets hope they don't need it.  In reality, there should be a rule about carrying bear spray in park buildings, just as there is with firearms.

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