Bear-Viewing in North America Stirs Concerns About Safety

Julian Smith
for National Geographic News
January 22, 2002

They gather in southeastern Alaska, in Yellowstone, and on the coast of British Columbia, wherever the land is wild and the salmon are plentiful.

They're bear viewers, and in the past decade they have grown dramatically in number. But as the tourists flock, some scientists, wildlife managers, and business owners warn that the fledgling industry needs stricter guidelines.

"The safety of both bears and people could soon be in jeopardy," said Barrie Gilbert of Utah State University, who has been studying bear-human interactions since 1975—two years before a Yellowstone grizzly almost killed him.

Bear-viewing tourism increased greatly in the 1990s, especially with the growth of tour companies that take people to sites where bears congregate, such as salmon streams and tidal estuaries.

At Alaska's Katmai National Park, whose Brooks Camp is one of the state's most popular grizzly-viewing areas, the number of visitors rose threefold over the past two decades, to 51,659 in 1999.

In British Columbia, which has a population of grizzlies second only to that of Alaska in North America, about 40 companies currently offer some form of commercial bear-viewing on the province's coast.

Knight Inlet Lodge, a floating hotel on the southern B.C. coast, had two guests in 1996 who came specifically to see grizzlies, which gather on public land at the mouth of the nearby Glendale River. Today, nearly every bunk in the lodge is booked months ahead of time.

New View of Bears

At the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska, a small public reserve where hunting is prohibited, grizzly sightings are so plentiful in the summer and fall that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has had to institute a lottery-style permit system to regulate the number of visitors. Ten people are allowed each day, but the sanctuary receives, on average, six times as many applications as there are bear-viewing permits every year.

The growing interest comes in part because people are learning that it's possible to see wild grizzlies up close, in relative safety and comfort.

"The media definitely has a lot to do with it," said Chris Day, the owner of Emerald Air in Homer, Alaska. "IMAX films, documentaries, articles in National Geographic—they've all been letting people know that bears aren't necessarily dangerous, lurking in the bushes." In 1994 Day began offering bear-viewing day trips using a chartered floatplane.

Documentaries and magazines show bears munching salmon while tourists snap photos from nearby platforms. Lodges and tour operators tempt customers with hot tubs and gourmet food to go with their wilderness adventure.

Continued on Next Page >>


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