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Valuable lessons from “bear viewing” at McNeil River

Refuge Notebook

Posted: August 3, 2012 - 9:38am
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Seuss and an unidentified brown bear tussle over a chum salmon at McNeil River Falls.    Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Seuss and an unidentified brown bear tussle over a chum salmon at McNeil River Falls.

I spent last week “bear viewing” at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on the other side of the Cook Inlet. I put quotation marks around this activity because it was so much more than just watching brown bears do their thing in the wild. It was about  interacting with bears in a way that allows a 1,000-pound boar to lounge sleepily eight feet from you; that makes younger, less-dominant bears feel safe about munching salmon as you eat your lunch nearby; and that sets the stage for a bear to walk past a group of watchful humans on the river’s shore without either party feeling threatened.     

Brown bears concentrate at the McNeil River Falls during mid-summer when chum salmon are making their way upstream. The sanctuary was named after Charlie McNeil, who came to Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush, and eventually established his copper claim and ranch on this glacial river that empties into Kamishak Bay. Since 1967, hunting has been prohibited on the 128,000-acre sanctuary. At least 144 different bears have been documented on the McNeil River during the summer, with as many as 74 bears observed at one time. 

McNeil River Falls is admittedly at the far end of the spectrum of bear viewing opportunities in Alaska. It is a tightly-controlled situation in which no more than 10 permittees (by lottery) per day are guided by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff. The group observes from established viewing platforms (gravel pads) and generally walks on established trails.

When in close proximity to bears, the group functions almost as a large bear rather than individual humans. The key is to not challenge another bear, but to hold your ground if directly challenged. And this works well at McNeil where bears have been conditioned over several generations to expect neither reward nor penalty from humans. Our group was a neutral entity on the landscape, offering little stress to bears that were busy reacting to other bears while fishing for chum salmon. 

Our high count during my three days was 32 bears, mostly boars, at the McNeil River Falls. Many of these bears are recognized by their physical attributes, and names given to them by our guides have a story behind them – Scraper, Luther, Seuss, Ears, Ted and Holderman. And most of these bears have old scars and fresh wounds from fighting one another. 

In contrast, no one has ever been injured by a bear at McNeil River over the past four decades, and no bears have been killed by visitors since the permit program was initiated in 1973. This is a remarkable record.

If only we could do so well on the Kenai Peninsula. The number of brown bears killed in defense of life or property (DLP) has increased from less than 1 per year in the 1960s, to 5 per year in the 1990s, to greater than 10 per year since 2000. This trend coincides with the ~10,000 new residents settling in the borough during each of the past five decades. In 2008, the highest year on record, 41 brown bears were killed as DLPs. And, of course, we’ve had our share of maulings over the years.

I discussed if lessons learned at McNeil could help reduce DLPs on the Kenai with John Hechtel and Drew Hamilton, our two guides who have plenty of experience interacting with bears. Recognizing that McNeil is a unique situation in which bears are satiated and people behave themselves, perhaps the most salient message was “be proactive”. Have your bear spray accessible before you need it.  Install electric fences around your chicken coops and bee hives before they’re depredated. Use bear-proof containers before your garbage gets strewn across your lot. When fishing the Russian River, keep your backpack and coolers on you before a bear walks away with it. Let the bears know you’re coming before you surprise them and both parties act threatening. As Hechtel points out, it’s cheaper, easier and safer to do these things before than after the bears have chewed up your property or threatened your life.

Using a gun is not the only solution to conflicts with bears. If you don’t believe bear spray can work, read the Journal of Wildlife Management article by Tom Smith and three other bear biologists about how effective it is as a nonlethal deterrent (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2193/2006-452/pdf). If you can’t afford an electric fence, contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Kenai about their cost-share program that can reimburse as much as 90 percent of equipment costs. If you can’t afford bear-proof garbage cans, ADF&G’s Wildlife Conservation Community Program can help cost-share that purchase or they can be rented from Alaska Waste for less than $9 a month.  And cheap coolers also come as backpacks. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Ultimately, our interaction with bears says as much about us as it does anything else. Bears can be intimidating, and they can injure and even kill us. But with a little adjustment in our behaviors, we can engage with bears in a much more benign and respectful way than DLP statistics suggest. The bears of McNeil River have learned to tolerate the close presence of humans. I suspect we’re capable of reciprocating a bit as well.   

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