Brooks River in Katmai National Park, Alaska is historically, culturally, and ecologically unique. The river corridor has harbored Alaska Native peoples for thousands of years, is one of the densest archeological sites in Alaska, and remains a place of profound significance for Alutiiq descendants of former Katmai residents. The underlying geology records stories of great volcanic and glacial change. Hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon annually use the river for migration and spawning. And, during the last 40 years it has become especially famous for its brown bears and wildlife viewing opportunities. There’s no other place like it.
Brooks Camp is also experiencing more people than ever before.
In the midst of skyrocketing visitation last year, Katmai National Park implemented a pilot permit program for Brooks River. The permit system didn’t change wildlife distance regulations at Brooks River or limit the overall number of people who could visit. Instead, it applied only to those who wish to physically enter the river or its banks outside of the designated trails, roadways, bridge, and platforms. No one needed to reserve a permit unless they planned to enter the river or walk off trail along the riverbanks (two activities that I suggest should be avoided to give bears the space they need).
The pilot program appeared to be successful. It provided National Park Service (NPS) staff with an additional opportunity to communicate the special circumstances, rules, and responsibilities that apply to Brooks River. The NPS could revoke the permit in instances where permit holders did not adhere to wildlife distance or fishing regulations, which effectively prohibited the person(s) from reentering the river. It allowed approved Brooks River Guides to continue to give their clients the mandatory bear-safety orientations. And finally, it did not restrict or interfere with subsistence fishing associated with the traditional redfish harvest.
Now, the NPS is looking for public comments about the permit system. If you have the time and care about the bears who make the river their summer home, then please support the plan with a comment on or before April 28. As the Katmai Conservancy suggests, say yes to the permit and ask the NPS to limit the number of permits on a daily or weekly basis.
Why are permits necessary? The relative ease and accessibility of the bear-viewing experience at Brooks Camp has attracted increasing numbers of people. More than 16,000 people visited in 2022—an all time record high—and almost double the visitation of 2008. Brooks River is a mere 1.5 miles (2.6 km) long, yet dozens of brown bears use it during the salmon migration and spawning seasons of summer and early fall.
People who enter in the river directly occupy the habitat that bears need to fish for salmon. Numerous scientific studies (reviewed here) have documented that human recreation can displace bears in time and space. The presence of people can cause bears to switch from diurnal to crepuscular activities in response to bear-viewing, angling, hiking, and camping. Bears decrease in number and are present for shorter time spans when exposed to people, angling, and bear-viewing. Bears also spend less time fishing and have less fishing success when anglers and bear-viewers are present.
Studies specific to Katmai National Park have found that the presence of people can affect when bears fish (Olson et al. 1998) and cause bears to avoid or alter their use of foraging areas (Rode et al. 2007; Smith 2002; Turner and Hamon 2016). Therefore, even a small number of well-behaved and well-intentioned people in the wrong place (like in the river) can have a disproportionately negative effect on brown bears. Disturbance of wildlife can also result in decreased visitor satisfaction (Skibins et al. 2012) and create user conflicts between visitors who are recreating in different ways (bear watching from the platforms or online via webcams vs fishing or photographing bears in the river).
Importantly, and tucked away in the park’s newsletter about the permits, is this: “There is no limit established to the number of permits issued during the permit-required time frame currently, but this will be considered if public feedback to the plan supports a limitation or if conditions change within the Brooks River Corridor to warrant a limitation.” Therefore, I recommend that comments ask the NPS to go beyond merely requiring permits. Comments about the permits should encourage the NPS to establish limits to permits on a daily or weekly basis and perhaps even greater seasonal closures to Brooks River to adequately protect habitat for bears.
I didn’t visit Brooks River in person last year, but rangers and some people I know who had traveled there reported to me that the pilot permit system worked well. While it does not address over-crowding and congestion issues at Brooks Camp caused by record-high levels of visitation, it is certainly a big step in the right direction to ensure the river’s bears have access to the habitat they need to survive. None of the existing regulations would change at Brooks Camp. The permits only make it easier for the NPS to enforce them. But permits alone are not enough. Existing protections for bears can be made more effective if permits were limited in availability. Our national parks, and indeed Brooks Camp, cannot support unlimited numbers of people. The Brooks River corridor is a small area overall. It has limited space for bears and a limited carrying capacity for a high-quality bear-viewing or fishing experiences. Please let the NPS know you support their efforts to protect habitat for bears in the river through the permit system and that the number of permits should be limited on a daily or weekly basis when bears are actively fishing in the river.
Submit your comments here on or before April 28, 2023.
For additional information, please see the comments I wrote on behalf of the Katmai Conservancy, an example comment that you can use, and my Brooks River pledge. As always, when commenting please stay polite and respectful. The people who manage Katmai are intelligent and well-meaning. They do not deserve insults or personal attacks.
4 thoughts on “Action Needed: Support a Permit System for Brooks River”
I think you should keep the permit program and maybe limit the amount of people daily. When I was there in September, 2021, it was such a serene, fascinating place to be. I never once felt afraid of the bears. I met one on the trail and stepped aside like you suggested. You guys are doing a wonderful job by the way. I was supposed to do a fly fishing trip but it got rained out. So I’d like to come back to do that and feel the experience of being in the water near the bears is a privilege. The bears have the right of way always. So I hope the program continues. Again, Thank you.
Yes, I support a Permit System for Brooks River. Ron Pagliaro (Yankee Man)
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Mike – Thanks so much for all of this information. Just submitted my comments to NPS.
Thanks Mike, your comment letters are great. I am in favor of a permit system that limits the number of permits available. I will submit my comments to the NPS