Bear viewing big business, growing concern for Alaska

Posted: Friday, August 02, 2002

More than a dozen brown bears casually grazed the sedge flat within a quarter of a mile of bear viewing guide and pilot Gary Porter's group.

The sun was shining. The Aleutian Range reared up, looming over the Katmai coast, which was awash in a lazy calm this June morning.

The bears moved slowly in the green meadow, looking more like buffalo than one of North America's top predators. Despite some occasional frolicking, the scene was quite sedate. The bears politely ignored the nine people sitting at the meadow's edge. The nine people talked quietly, with the kind of respectfully casual demeanor you might find from a group of art lovers on an all-day tour of the Louvre. Only the clicking of cameras sporting giant telephoto lenses gave them away.

Then the huge male appeared. By his mere presence, this bear put all the bears near him into motion. The reaction was immediate, the way a stick stirs up an ant hill.

Most agitated of all, a female with a pair of yearling cubs wasted no time. She and her cubs broke into a full gallop and made straight for the bear-viewing tour group.

But instead of screams and chaos arising in the group, calm reigned, punctuated by a few quiet exclamations and a flurry of shutter noise.


Moments earlier the three bears have been in full flight as this big boar arrived on the scene. The Alaska Peninsula has an estimated population of 2,000 to 3,000 brown bears.

Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News

Porter had rehearsed this moment for his clients on the floatplane dock in Homer earlier that morning.

"You just don't run," he'd said matter-of-factly, echoing most bear literature and Alaska park rangers. "You can't let them push you around."

The sow and her cubs passed within meters of Porter's group and ran on until they'd put the people between themselves and their pursuer. The big male, a brown bear Porter guessed might tip the scales at 1,300 pounds, gave a half-hearted chase, then pulled up short of the tourists and indifferently meandered toward the meadow's center.

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists estimate that there may be close to 250 grizzly bears on the Kenai Peninsula. By comparison, literature for Katmai National Park puts the number of grizzly bears on the Alaska Peninsula at between 2,000 and 3,000. The range for this extraordinary concentration of coastal brown bears extends several hundred miles south from Lake Clark National Park and encompasses everything from Cook Inlet and Shelikof Strait on the east to the salmon-choked lake and river systems that drain into Bristol Bay to the west.

The National Park Service estimates that perhaps 10 percent of those bears make their living in the nutrient-rich ecosystems of Katmai.

And more than any other locale, Katmai is the place where Homer's bear-viewing tour operators are making their living as well.

Three Homer-based companies offer single-day guided bear-viewing trips to Katmai National Park, flying their clients by floatplane from Beluga Lake to the other side of the inlet.

There are several Homer companies that advertise boat-run bear watching tours on the coast of lower Cook Inlet.

Duck into the Homer Chamber of Commerce, where live footage of McNeil River bears is always on display, and the options for tours multiply.

The tour booking agencies on the Homer Spit likewise carry all manner of bear-oriented brochures, from overnight trips to expensive fly-out lodges, to one-day out-and-back boat trips to Tuxedni Bay.

The options range in price roughly from $300 to $500 for a single day of viewing bears, according to the Bookie, a Homer tour-booking agency. A little research will reveal a wide variety of trips to a number of different locations.

Nearly every air charter operation on wheels or floats has a contingency for putting camera-toting customers into the brown bear country across Cook Inlet.

Driving this increasingly important industry is the surge in Outside public awareness of grizzly bears, fed by a steady stream of video and film productions featuring the Alaska Peninsula bears.

Homer bear guide Chris Day said in recent years she had been out with a number of film crews, from the BBC to National Geographic, from which a bay on the Katmai coast takes its name. At the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in February, the National Wildlife Federation premiered an IMAX film on bears, including a number of sequences filmed on the Alaska Peninsula. Day is the only on-camera personality that has a meaningful speaking role in the film.

Combine an upswing in public curiosity about bears with a general increase in Alaska tourism in recent years, and you have the makings of big business for Homer.

"Halibut is still king," Porter said. "But we're getting a good reputation for" putting the public into remote bear-viewing locations.

In 1999, the National Park Service's figures showed that companies operating tours on the Katmai coast did $2.5 million in gross sales, according to a report written by George Matz, an independent researcher on eco-tourism and conservation issues.

Those figures have likely increased in the interim.

"We've had a tremendous increase in the number of commercial (bear-viewing) operators and a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to Katmai," said Deb Liggett, superintendent for Katmai and Lake Clark national parks.

According to Matz, wildlife viewing in general means tens of millions of dollars to the Southcentral economy. Matz's report, titled the Chenik Report and released in 2000, highlights that in the world of watchable wildlife, bears are at the top of the economic food chain.

Much of the media coverage of the Cook Inlet brown bears shows one important thing beyond the beauty of the animals and their habitat -- Alaska Peninsula bear viewing is not a high-risk adventure.

"Bears are really predictable," Day said. "And these bears are more tolerant than most bears. And bears that are exposed to people in the right manner" make great company.

On the other hand, she added, improper behavior around bears will cause problems and is ultimately a threat to the survival of the bear.

This presents a problem for federal and state wildlife managers.

With an increasing number of operators bringing clients into Katmai's wilderness, managers worry about the possibility of improper human behavior, and both the state and the National Park Service have been studying the issue of people viewing bears on the Alaska Peninsula.

Liggett said within the next two weeks she expects to unveil a plan detailing principals and best practices for bear viewing.

For Matz, there are three key elements involved in sustaining the viability of the bear-viewing industry: first, protecting the bears; second, protecting the people watching the bears; and third, protecting the quality of the wilderness experience for the bear watchers.

Liggett agreed.

"The key with bears is to have consistency so that the actions by one group don't put another group in danger," Liggett said. "This is an issue of people management, because really only bears manage bears."

People management is an issue in a number of ways, some of which are obvious while others are less so.

The first principal managers typically talk about for bear viewing is a basic one -- not impinging on the bears feeding habits or ability to move around their habitat.

According to Porter, the vast majority of bear guides hold this principal sacred, and as the number of groups has increased, the guides have usually teamed up their groups to minimize their impact on the bears.

Another issue that often comes up is the problem of habituation. As the bears become habituated to the presence of human beings, they've been known to adapt around it. The female with cubs using Porter's group as a shield against the aggressive male is a case in point.

"The goal is protected wild bears, not trained circus bears," Liggett said. If that sow lays down with her cubs a few feet from a bear-viewing group, "is that a trained bear or is that a wild bear?"

The ethical question of hunting for populations of bears that are habituated to people often comes up as well.

Homer bear biologist and guide Derek Stonorov said he believes the bears are smarter than people think.

Porter agreed, saying that the bears that are typically hunted, the large males, typically retain their aversion to humans.

These are some of the issues that the Park Service and state biologists are seeking to address, Liggett said, adding that the guidelines are suggestions, not regulations, which she hopes the commercial operators will consider. The goal is for the state and federal managers and biologists to meet with the bear-viewing tour operators after the principals have been put into practice.

Day summed up her philosophy in one word -- respect.

"Respect is the key word when it comes to bears," she said.

It is the attitude she tries to convey by providing, first and foremost, an educational experience for her clients.

"We hope that everyone leaves here as an ambassador for bears," Day said. "And not just for the bears, but for the country they live in."

And the most remarkable thing about the country is the sheer number of bears it will support.

Liggett said the Katmai coast, which is around 400 miles long, supports the densest population of brown bears in the world. It is the inherent social nature of these bears that makes them so fascinating to watch.

Following the hour-long flight back across Shelikof Strait and Cook Inlet to Homer, which typically involves a bit of glacier flightseeing and whale watching, bear-viewing clients are deposited back into the world of pavement, ATMs and newspaper deadlines.

But judging from the comments of Porter's group, the awe-struck feeling of being temporarily transported to the world of the coastal brown bear had lasted beyond the flight home.

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