Facing Off Against Wyoming’s Dreaded ‘Robo Bear’ Is Trickier Than You Might Think

Cowboy State Daily outdoors reporter Mark Heinz and columnist Bill Sniffin survived grizzly attacks this weekend — sort of. They faced off against Wyoming’s dreaded robotic grizzly bear.

Mark Heinz

May 22, 20237 min read

Cowboy State Daily outdoors reporter Mark Heinz gives "Robo-Bear" a snootful of bear spray during a demonstration in Lander over the weekend.
Cowboy State Daily outdoors reporter Mark Heinz gives "Robo-Bear" a snootful of bear spray during a demonstration in Lander over the weekend. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Writing about him from halfway across the state is one thing. Meeting him face-to-face is quite another.

That’s the experience when facing down a homicidal charge from Wyoming’s famed (or perhaps infamous) “Robo-Bear.”

It’s a wheeled contraption with a facsimile of a bear mounted atop it that can reach speeds of up to 20 mph as it charges, and puts your skills with bear spray to the test.

Cowboy State Daily columnist Bill Sniffin and I faced off with Robo-Bear this weekend during the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wyoming Outdoor Weekend expo in Lander.

And we did … well, OK.

At least we lived to tell about it with only our egos a little mauled for the experience.

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Thrilling, And Humbling

Grizzlies are an iconic Wyoming species. While there’s controversy over whether they should be delisted as an endangered species or remain under federal protection, there’s near-universal agreement that they truly put the “wild” into Wyoming’s wild country.

Many outdoors enthusiasts will say that it’s both thrilling and humbling to be out in the wilderness knowing that you’re no longer at the top of the food chain.

I’ve had only limited experience with grizzly bears. I lived in northwest Wyoming for a time, but avoided going into grizzly territory alone. I live in Laramie now, and the country around here isn’t known to have grizzlies. We have our share of black bears and mountain lions,which can sometimes be dangerous.

The only time I’ve been close to a brown bear — a close cousin of our griz — was in Denali National Park in Alaska many years ago. I watched a huge bruin lumber across the tundra, getting maybe a couple of hundred yards away at the nearest point.

He was completely unconcerned with my presence. But had he decided that he didn’t like me, I was fully aware there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done about it.

I didn’t have a firearm on me (Denali is a national park and packing heat there wasn’t allowed), and bear spray wasn’t really a thing back then. So, I didn’t have that either.

And yes, it’s quite a thrilling and humbling feeling knowing that it’s entirely up to an animal weighing in at about half a ton whether you’re going to see the end of that day.

Never Been Charged, But Have Heard Stories

Over the years in my career as a reporter, I have talked to quite a few people who’ve been up close and personal with grizzlies.

Grizzly attacks are rare, but when they do happen, there’s debate over whether you’d be better off with a firearm or bear spay. According to most research, bear spray is the best option.

However, that can depend upon circumstances.

During an interview late last year, Lee Francis of Evanston told me that when he was on the wrong end of a close-range grizzly blitz attack in the Gros Ventre Range, bear spray wouldn’t have done him any good. He credits his 10 mm handgun for saving his life, even though in the fury of the moment one of his shots hit him in the leg.

I fall into the “why choose — go with both” school of thought.

I have a couple of handguns that are certainly beefy enough to stop a black bear or mountain lion. And I also have a shotgun set up specifically to thump out buckshot and slugs, which could feasibly halt a grizzly in its tracks. And I practice regularly with all of them.

After all, if and when stuff gets real, any firearm is going to be only as good as your ability to shoot well with it.

I’m also a big believer in bear spray as the best first line of defense against an irritated grizzly. And I’ve heard that it works well on black bears and mountain lions too.  

And There He Was

Which brings us to this weekend.

As I said, I live in Laramie with my wife and our teenage daughter — the last of our five kids still left at home. However, we have close family in Riverton, so I’m there frequently enough for it to be my other Wyoming hometown. And I was there this past week.  

But oddly enough, I’d never been to Lander. I’d only skirted the edges of it a couple of times after coming off of South Pass.

On Saturday, I visited Sniffin at his home and Lander, and after chatting on his porch for a bit, we decided to head over to the outdoor expo.

And there he was in all his glory, the Robo-Bear.

Game and Fish large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson invited Bill and I to try our hand at being “charged” by the mechanical terror and see just how good we were with a can of bear spray.

‘Bear, Bear, Bear!’

It was inert bear spray, of course, only slightly scented. The real stuff is truly nasty, and clouds of it in the parking lot would have had anybody nearby coughing, and possibly even hurling.

Now, there’s the kiddie-level test. In which case, you’re allowed to stand facing the Robo-Bear before Thompson hits the trigger on its remote control and yells “bear, bear, bear” as it hurtles toward you.

Bill and I decided to play with the big boys. Meaning, you stand with your back to Robo-Bear with the plastic safety tab blocking the trigger on your bear spray.

That means that once you hear “bear, bear, bear,” you’ve got to release the safety and spin around with only a scant few moments to give your adversary a face full of pressurized defense.

Bill went first and managed to blast Robo-Bear right in the muzzle from mere inches away before it hopped over the sandbag stop and nearly got him.

Then it was my turn.

I practiced pulling the safety tab a couple of times and then told Dan that I as ready.

I could hear Robo-Bear’s motor starting to whir behind me, but I played fair and waited for “bear, bear, bear” before pulling the safety tab and whirling around. The wheeled bruin threw me a curveball, veering to my left as he came rolling in. I ended up getting more flank than face with my spray.

“He’d have got me that time,” I said.

Thompson was gracious enough to let me try a second time. And during that go-round, I gave Robo-Bear a proper blast right in the kisser.

All I Can Say Is, Practice

After the experience, I can attest, you’ll need to practice with bear spray just as surely as you would with a firearm.

Getting that safety tab out quickly is no mean feat. And though you might not have to aim as precisely as you would with a firearm, it’s certainly more exact than just “spray and pray.”

Again, any defensive weapon is only going to be as good as your ability to use it well.

Cans of inert and/or expired bear spray should serve for practice. I’ve seen footage of folks having friends roll an old tire toward them to simulate a charge during practice drills.

That seems like a good idea.

And by all means, if you get the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the Robo-Bear, take it. What you learn could pay off big time if you ever have to face down the real deal.

Mark Heinz can be reached at Mark@CowboyStateDaily.com

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter