SOLDOTNA (AP) -- The soaring popularity of bear viewing is prompting Alaska wildlife managers and guides to ask how they can protect bruins from well-meaning human visitors in the wild.
The numbers of guides landing floatplanes on remote lakes to watch brown bears feed on salmon is spiking, according to panelists at the third annual Alaska Bear Festival.
At Lake Clark alone, the number of commercial guides has climbed from 22 to 78 in five years, said Deb Liggett, superintendent of Katmai National Park.
''You've all heard the phrase 'The cat's out of the bag.' Well, the bear's out of the bag in this case,'' said Colleen Matt, manager of refuges and critical habitat areas for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
A panel discussion on the topic brought together guides, wildlife managers and a couple of scientists studying the complex interaction that takes place when humans and bears descend on the same salmon streams.
The issue is broader than just a rise in guided bear viewing, guides say. Visits of anglers and unguided campers to remote streams are also rising.
Potential problems range from crowds taking some of the fun out of bear viewing to the threat that too many humans might spook brown bears out of their fishing holes, depriving them of a vital food source.
Guides say the presence of properly guided humans who show respect for habituated bears has little effect on bear behavior.
But scientists studying the rise in popularity of both fishing and bear viewing on the west side of Cook Inlet say the human influx is having an undeniable effect.
If people are removed from a stream bank, the bears spread out and use the whole river, said Tom Smith, a federal research biologist. It's also a well-known phenomenon in Katmai, he said, that when people show up, the large boars leave.
Trends suggest there is an upper limit to how much pressure bears will take before they are pushed off a stream, he said. ''The question is at what point is it too much. That's a hard one.''
Guides said the awesome experience of making eye contact with a foraging bear, while listening to a knowledgeable guide describe the habitat and behavior of the huge predators, may be a key to the species' survival.
''I believe well-managed bear-viewing is about the best thing going for the future of the bears,'' said John Rogers, owner of Katmai Coastal Tours. ''Without bears, without wilderness, we have lost something that can never be replaced.''
The festival is a forum for the latest research and bear issues affecting the state. Besides the discussion on bear viewing, it focused on the advent of remote-control cameras, the recently completed long-range Kenai Peninsula conservation strategy, the latest research and a discussion about how Alaska residents can coexist with local bears.
Gov. Tony Knowles addressed the audience, and the festival featured speakers who talked about Alaska's unique place in world bear conservation and the value of bears to northern cultures.
The festival began Friday in Anchorage and moved to Soldotna on Saturday.
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