A Step to Protect Brooks River’s Bears

Each year, the National Park Service in Alaska reviews compendiums for park areas and provides the public with an opportunity to comment on proposed changes or suggest changes. This year, Katmai National Park is proposing a change to its compendium that will give staff greater flexibility when managing the Brooks River area. If you value the river’s wildlife and the bear-watching experience at Brooks River, whether in person or through explore.org’s bearcams, then please support this change.

Visitation at Brooks Camp has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels during the last several years. In 2015, the last full summer I spent as a ranger at Brooks Camp, approximately 9,300 people attended the NPS bear orientation. In 2016, the number of orientations climbed to 10,900. By 2018, the number had grown to 12,500 and in 2019 it reached over 14,000, the highest visitation every recorded at Brooks River. This change may not seem like much (Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Visitor Center often receives over 10,000 people per day in summer). However, the Brooks River corridor is quite small. The river itself is only 1.5 miles long and during the busiest days in July over 500 people and a few dozen brown bears attempt to share its space. The increase in visitation and unrestricted access to the river has created an untenable situation that taxes park staff, facilities, the experience, and the bears’ ability to tolerate and adapt.

graph showing number of people attending bear orientations (y axis) by year (x axis). The number of orientations has doubled since the 2000s.

Attendance to mandatory bear safety orientations can be used as a proxy for overall visitation to Brooks Camp. In the last ten years, the number of people attending the orientations has doubled.

Related: Bears and Humans at Brooks River

Brooks River is a unique place within America’s national parks. In a landscape home to more bears than people, it is Katmai National Park’s most famous bear watching destination. However, it is perhaps the only area in Alaska that is actively managed as a bear-viewing destination yet has no restrictions on access. No permits or guides are required to visit. There is no limit to how many people can visit each day and almost no restrictions on where you can go when you get there. Arriving visitors are required to attend a mandatory bear safety talk that outlines the proper and expected behavior. After that though, you are largely free do go about your business. To help manage the situation, the National Park Service has proposed this change to Katmai’s compendium.

The Superintendent may prohibit activities, impose restrictions or require permits within the Brooks Camp Developed Area. Information on closures and restrictions will be available in the park visitor center. Violating [Brooks Camp Developed Area] closures or restrictions is prohibited.

The NPS lists several reasons for the proposed change.

  • High visitation and improper behavior by people has negatively impacted bears along the river corridor.
  • The park has received more complaints and concerns from the public regarding bear-human interactions.
  • Bears are changing how they use the river, so current closures are becoming increasingly inadequate.
  • Visitation has increased dramatically over the last several years.
  • To better manage the river corridor, the park needs more flexible management tools.

While the proposed change is no panacea for the challenges facing park staff at Brooks River, it can provide an important tool to manage changing situations. For example, it hypothetically allows the NPS to extend the closure around Brooks Falls beyond August 15 or even restrict human access in the lower river area when bear activity is high.

Quite often, proposals for greater restrictions and regulations in national parks attract more opposition than support, especially if the change has the potential to impact public access or business interests. Now though, we have the opportunity to let the NPS know this change is worthwhile and necessary.

Portions of Katmai’s bear population are equally sensitive to human disturbance as the grizzlies in Yellowstone, yet the only area in Katmai where people cannot venture is the immediate area surrounding Brooks Falls, and then only from June 15 to August 15. Since I came to discover Brooks River for myself in 2007, protections for bears have slowly eroded. In the face of skyrocketing visitation, the NPS has proposed a positive step to protect bears and the bear-watching experience. So please send the park a comment expressing your support for the change. Here’s an example to get you started (feel free to customize it as you see fit). You can download a copy of the proposed changes and submit comments on the NPS’s project website. The comment period is open through February 15, 2020.

PS: If you plan to visit Brooks Camp this summer or in the future, please consider subscribing to the Brooks River Pledge. It’s a personal pledge between yourself and Brooks River with the goal to emphasize respect for the bears’ space as well as ways to continue to have a high quality bear viewing experience.

21 thoughts on “A Step to Protect Brooks River’s Bears

  1. Mike,
    Thank you for this call to action. As a ranger who had to manage bear/human interaction, I applaud these changes. The increased visitation, especially in July, taxed rangers and bears alike. And some visitors were justly angered when they were not informed by pilots or guides that 2 hours of their 4 hour visit to Brooks might be spent waiting to get a space on the crowded Falls platform.
    One additional request I would make to the bear-loving public: Please include a statement in your letter about how much the Park, the bears and the cams mean to you. The superintendent receives your complaints, and obviously takes them seriously. But he seldom hears how important the resources of Katmai are to you. Show him your love for the park, the rangers, the bears and the explore.org cams.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. you rock mike. I fully support the proposed changes. I feel very lucky to have been able to visit katmai and can’t wait to go back in sept. 2020. while there I id see some questionable behavior and heard tales from some of the rangers. katmai belongs to the bears, we’re just visiting, so the park should do whatever is necessary to keep the bears safe from human stupidity .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Mike. Definitely support and will comment appropriately. I also think it’s time to limit day visitation numbers, but just my opinion. The noise pollution from all the planes, not to mention too many people, concerns me. I have not visited but I see and hear it from videos/cams.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for posting this. I happened to stumble upon all this in PEPC the other day when I was looking for information pertaining to a park I am working for at the moment. I’m very happy to see that the park is willing to solicit public feedback about these issues, and I hope there will be changes in terms of limits. Visiting Brooks camp was such a contrast to the other bear watching I’m done, which was Anan Creek. I’ve been there twice, and they only allow 50 people per day in. Nearly everyone goes with a guide, and the guides keep very strict tabs on you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I began watching the Bear Cams quite a few years ago, but at the beginning, I was not aware of the Chat Board nor the Live Chats. While I loved just watching the Bears, it wasn’t until I came upon a Live Chat with you, Mr. Mike Fitz Naturalist, as the host that I became passionate about the Bears. I was completely overtaken with your wealth of knowledge and your passion for these Bears and it was at that moment that they became my passion as well. So thank you for sharing your wisdom and your passion. I’m sure it has changed many people’s lives, not just mine.
    I’d like to think that the many cam watchers who voiced their concerns about human interference with the Bears had something to do with the proposed changes. But regardless how these changes came to be, I am just glad that they are happening. Any change for the better in preserving the Bears’ natural habitat is a plus, but I’m very anxious to see exactly what changes will be implemented and if they go far enough to protect the Bears. Kudos to everyone who had even the smallest part in this coming to fruition. We Bear lovers and our Bears thank you so very much!
    I don’t know about anyone else, but the changes have me even more excited for the new season of Bear Watching!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a step in the right direction, it was getting hard to watch the cams, with a lot of people ignoring the rules.
    One day, I watched 2 fisherman chase 719, a new young, first time mother from under the bridge, so they could fish there, it really was annoying to see, then the guy was smoking and tossed his butt in the water.

    Thank you for posting this, it makes me feel better about the bears safety.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Mike. I have read the proposed changes and submitted my comments in strong support. I appreciate the opportunity to voice my opinion on matters relating to our (Katmai) bears. I think that any of us who watch the bears on explore.org have seen the flaws in the system at Brooks Camp. I’m happy the flaws are being addressed. May the bears continue to live in relative peace and may we continue to be able to watch them.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks Mike for providing information on the proposed changes, much appreciated. I have provided my supportive comments on the NPS website
    Jim Schutz
    West Richland, WA

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for alerting us to this. I love katmai and fully support restrictions. I have watched the number of people walking in the river increase each year and I worry about the bears. I have written in and will encourage others to as well

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  10. Hi Mike,

    I don’t see any mention, that in addition to this change, they also are considering additional parking, and, allowing boats up to the bridge, along with considering allowing motorized bicycles. Would appreciate your input as I need assistance in viewing my opinion in a letter, without sounding upset.

    Thank you Mke

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    • I believe that the proposals for additional parking and ebikes are proposals made for all parks, not for Katmai. There are no roads to Brooks. The only way to get there is by float plane or boat. I doubt that ebikes would be used at Brooks, but never say never. And, I would add, I hope not. Right now only park staff uses bikes, and that can be a precarious business. You don’t want to turn a corner and speed into a bear.
      But please include your concerns about these matters in your comments. And the reason for your concerns — your love and appreciation of the park.

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    • Motor boats have always been allowed upriver to the bridge, and the floating bridge prevented motor boats from going farther upriver. With the new bridge, however, there is no barrier, so the park is formalizing a de facto closure that they had been in place for decades. The parking area is at Lake Camp, a boat launch at the head of Naknek River. The park isn’t creating more parking, just allowing people to park their vehicles over a longer time frame. Finally, bicycles are allowed on any road in the park open to public vehicles, including the dirt roads at Brooks Camp and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Road. The change regarding e-bikes is just a reflection a national policy change. I used to ride my bicycle on the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Road frequently, albeit with caution, but I’ve only seen a handful of visitors bring their bicycles to Brooks Camp. It is a long way to travel for not a lot of cycling. Ebikes are even heavier than regular bikes and would be even more expensive to ship there. I don’t expect any increase in bicycling there unless more employees utilize it.

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      • Thanks for the clarifications, Mike. I forgot that the recommendation for additional parking was at Lake Camp. I only saw one visitor bring a bike to Brooks Camp last summer and he was told by law enforcement that he could not ride it on trails, only on the Valley Road. And, yes, the bike trip to the Valley is great.

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      • Meant this question for you, not Naomi. Are you saying the park will still allow motorboats up to the bridge? I don’t see how they could follow the 50 yard rule. If bears are swimming up river toward the boat it seems the boat could be trapped, unable to move around the bears and still maintain the 50 rule.

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  11. This proposal is a very slippery slope. regulations equal more dollars spent by the visitors. In the long run the proposal will restrict average people from visiting the area. It will bring additional fees and fines that are not necessary. A hand full of outfitters and the park service will be the only ones who benefit financially. I have not visited but I do enjoy the Bear Cam. Seems to me that neither the bears or salmon have suffered from the amount of visitors. Record salmon runs and very healthy bear visits for three years now.

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    • Human presence changes bear behavior. Period. The bears of Brooks have learned to tolerate well-behaved humans, but crowding creates more and more opportunities for very stressful and dangerous encounters for both bears and humans. Even in low stress human/bear situations, bears can be stressed. I experienced that several times. And, there can be constructive restrictions that would not restrict or limit visitation by lower income people. As it is, any means of getting to Brooks is expensive. But the most expensive means — day trips on float planes that can cost upwards of $1000/person — have increased substantially. Limitations on those visits could help the health of the park and its resources without limiting less expensive access to the park.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I wholeheartedly suport restrictions do the wildlife has their space to live and thrive. I can see the effect that increased visitation and free access that visitors have is impacting the bears and other wildlife along the river everyday on the bearcams. I’m afraid a negative interaction will someday occur and will turn out badly for the wildlife that live there. It’s their home. We are the visitors and too many people do not know how to behave and respect all living creatures.

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  13. Thank you for helping to bring the proposed changes at Brooks River to everyone’s attention Mike, I sent them a comment and hope some of the changes are enacted – particularly limiting the number of day trippers, limiting where people can go in the lower river and banning people from using the river in the Falls area until the end of September – it really was a circus like atmosphere in the lower river at times last season, it is one of the reasons I mostly watched the Falls camera, you can’t see all the people on that cam – lack of respect before nature never works out well in the movies, and I’m afraid that even though the Brooks Falls Bears are incredibly tolerant of humans, if the crowding of the Bears continues something bad will happen someday and the Bears will get blamed for it, when they didn’t ask for their home to be turned into a tourist attraction, Brooks Falls is a magical place and I’m glad the Bear Cams give us such an amazing window into their lives, I’m also glad people can go to Brooks River to see these remarkable Bears in person, but let’s continue to give the Bears the respect and space they deserve.

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