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

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.

More tourists means more tourist dollars.

Tourists pay up to U.S. $2,103 each to visit Churchill, Manitoba, the most popular destination for viewing polar bears in North America.

Day's tours have become so popular that two years ago she bought her own Dehavilland Otter floatplane. "Now it seems everybody who has an airplane, and in some cases, a boat, is offering bear-viewing," she said.

Growing Risks

As more and more people have close encounters with bears, there's a growing risk of danger. Major injuries have not been a problem so far at popular bear-viewing spots in Alaska and British Columbia, but several incidents in recent years have raised concern.

In Alaska, a ranger at Katmai National Park was bitten on the hand by a charging grizzly. Bears have been reported trying to climb into boats full of viewers.

In 2000, Knight Inlet visitors watched in fear as a man who had paid to be flown to the site, which is on public land, sat down near feeding grizzlies, who sniffed him curiously. He was eventually persuaded to leave without incident.

Wildlife managers and concerned officials say one problem is the films and videos that attract people to bear-watching in the first place. Some show people dangerously close to bears or acting inappropriately around the animals.

As a result, said wildlife biologist George Matz, viewers may let their guard down. "At Katmai, people are almost applauding when bears catch fish," he said. "Sometimes it looks like a sporting event."

Day said the increased publicity and public interest is a mixed blessing. "It's great and it's not so great," she said. "We don't want it to be a Disneyland experience. We want people to go away understanding the bears."

Unfortunately, when encounters between people and bears do become unfriendly, it often results in the death of bears. In Alaska and British Columbia, it's legal to shoot a grizzly in defense of life and property. Even when no one gets hurt, experts say, bear populations can be seriously disturbed by unregulated interactions with people.

"Grizzly bears are highly intelligent animals, sensitive to their surroundings and experiences with people," said Gilbert. "And as the slowest reproducing land mammals in North America, they are particularly vulnerable to anything that interferes with their feeding or reproduction."

Studies show that bears behave differently in the presence of people. They spend less time fishing and more time watching their surroundings—a change in feeding habits that may affect their ability to survive the winter. They appear in the open most often at dawn and dusk, when people generally aren't around.

Small Groups and Self-Policing

Gilbert advocates the adoption of viewing guidelines to protect bears from "over-viewing" and ensure public safety. He suggests some specific practices that research by him and others has shown to reduce the effects that human presence can have on bears.

"Bears should be viewed from established locations, such as raised platforms, and at particular times, so you don't surprise them," said Gilbert, adding: "Small groups of viewers are key."

"And," he said, "it's crucial not to teach bears that people mean food." This means cleaning up campsites and making it impossible for bears to get into garbage. Bears that learn to connect people with food often become dangerously bold, and have to be relocated or killed.

Not all bears grow accustomed to the presence of people, Gilbert pointed out. "It's important to give these ones in particular regular 'windows' with no people around," he said.

Day said a licensing system should be required to keep out inexperienced guides who do not know how to act in the best interests of both their clients and the bears.

"The industry needs to self-police," she said. After agreeing to a set of recommendations, or "best practices," guides could work together to ensure that safe practices are being heeded, she said.

Such a system is already in effect among boat tour operators who take visitors to see pods of killer whales near Vancouver, B.C. The voluntary guidelines were adopted after scientists warned that the whale populations were at risk from being disturbed by too many boats approaching too closely.

Matz agreed that a voluntary system is a good start, and said that state and federal agencies have been working to come up with official guidelines. "Passing laws takes time," he said, "but things need to be done now."

Whether the guidelines are official or not, said Day, "I think we have a people problem, not a bear problem. Dealing with people is the hardest part of our job—the bears are a piece of cake!"

"In 14 years, I have never elicited an aggressive response from a bear," said Day. "The day we start impacting the bears badly, I won't do this anymore."

But, she added, "that's not true for everyone."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.