Bear spray can be difficult to purchase
RAY BROOK — In the summer of 2018, there were dozens of bear-related incidents in the North Country, including a recurring campsite raider that was eventually euthanized by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
DEC advised campers and hikers that it may be prudent to purchase and carry bear spray to help defend oneself in the event of a bear encounter.
But to the chagrin of many, bear spray is essentially illegal in New York.
Simply put, New Yorkers are allowed, by law, to carry self-defense spray. However, sprays marketed as “bear spray” far exceed what state law allows.
What it is
Self-defense spray is a can that discharges a concentrated solution of the active ingredient in hot peppers. The spray shoots out some distance and temporarily disables any would-be attackers.
Bear spray is little more than concentrated pepper spray, but it’s sold in much larger containers and with a higher concentration of capsaicinoids — the debilitating agent in pepper sprays that causes temporarily debilitating blindness and difficulty breathing.
Common self-defense sprays typically can spray up to about 15 feet, and often contain a dye that marks the person sprayed. Sabre Pepper Gel, for instance, has a concentration of 1.33%, a size of 0.6 ounces and a range of 12 feet. The small, cigar-sized canister has a key ring on it so that it can be kept readily accessible.
Bear sprays, on the other hand, are more concentrated, larger and have a farther range. Frontiersman Bear Attack Deterrent has a 30-foot spray, a 2% concentration of capsaicinoids and comes in a 7.9-ounce can.
New York has two sections of law that deal with “self-defense sprays.” In section 265.50 of NYS Penal Law, self-defense spray is defined as “a pocket sized spray device.” But in section 54.3 of the NYS Codes, Rules and Regulations, “the contents of every self-defense spray device shall not contain more than 0.7% by weight total capsaicinoids,” and “every self-defense spray device shall not exceed 0.75 ounces.”
There are a number of other conditions on who can purchase self-defense spray, such as being at least 18 years old and having no felony or assault convictions.
The DEC, which is governed by the state’s environmental conservation laws, claims that bear spray is legal as long as it is used only as intended.
“The environmental law and implementing DEC regulations do not cover the use of products marketed and/or labelled as ‘bear spray’ in New York,” DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald wrote in an email. “Consequently, ‘bear spray’ is not prohibited from being used by the environmental conservation law, but must be used according to labeling requirements. Products marketed and labeled as ‘self-defense spray’ are covered by the NYS penal law and in health regulations. For interpretation of the state Penal Law and implementing regulations, please contact the NYS Police.”
New York State Police Troop B spokeswoman trooper Jennifer Fleishman said an 8-ounce can of bear spray is more than four times the size that troopers themselves carry.
“Pocket sized, to me, would mean something smaller than eight ounces,” Fleishman wrote in an email. “We carry a spray that is 1.8 ounces on our belts, and I’d be hard-pressed to fit that in any of my pockets. Eight ounces is a pretty large size, therefore I would have to say that would be illegal to carry.”
State law also prohibits the mailing of pepper sprays into the state, so ordering bear spray online isn’t an option either.
Last summer, there were dozens of bear-related incidents in the northern part of the Adirondacks. In response to several questions after a bear was euthanized at the Saranac Islands campground, DEC Region 5 spokesman David Winchell said, “Bear spray is an option for close encounters; keep it on your person and accessible at all times.”
Matt Rothamel, co-owner of Blue Line Sports in Saranac Lake, said he carries bear spray but will only sell it to law enforcement officers, state agencies and people with a nuisance wildlife handling license.
“It’s regulated under penal law, so I can sell to state agencies; I can sell to people with certain licenses. I want to sell it to individuals who are having problems out there,” Rothamel said. “It’s the same thing as when you deal with gun stuff.
“We could get into some dicey situations, legally.”
Rothamel said people come into his store “all the time” to try and purchase bear spray, but he declines to sell it to the general public. He said he used to be an assistant forest ranger for the DEC, and said there’s other ways to get rid of bears, including making a lot of noise or even carrying a gun with non-lethal projectiles such as rubber slugs or shot, or blanks.
DEC’s Erin Hanczyk also said there a number of ways to prevent or reduce the chances of a bear encounter in the backcountry.
“If a bear approaches you, raise your arms and speak in a loud, calm voice while backing away. Never run from a bear,” Hanczyk wrote in an email. “Do not throw your backpack or food bag at the bear. If a bear charges you, stand your ground. If you have bear spray, dispense directly at the bear. If the bear starts to follow you, do not run. Continue to back away slowly while speaking loudly. If the bear still follows you, stand your ground, make yourself look bigger by waving your arms, clapping, shouting, or banging sticks.”