My Live Bearcam Broadcasts in 2018

This was a busy year on the bearcams, courtesy of explore.org and Katmai National Park. We hosted more live broadcasts this  year than any other year since the bearcams first went live in 2012.

During play-by-play broadcasts Katmai rangers and myself narrated the Brooks River’s wildlife activity, much like broadcasters for sporting event (although the lives of brown bears and salmon is no game). We never knew what might happen during a play-by-play. Watching the prolonged posturing between two of Brooks River’s largest adult males, 856 and 32 Chunk, on July 12 and integrating the ranger’s radio traffic into the September 17th broadcast are two of my favorite play-by-play moments.

The other broadcasts, live chats, typically focused on a specific topic such as bear fishing styles, hibernation, and bear research at Brooks River. Rangers Andrew LaValle and Russ Taylor from Katmai joined me as frequent co-hosts for live chats and I was also fortunate enough to speak with many special guests. Perhaps the most memorable moment from these broadcasts occurred when bear 132 and her spring cub almost stepped on Ranger Andrew and I during our Katmai centennial live chat on September 24.

If you enjoy these, then please watch many other broadcasts hosted by Katmai National Park rangers and staff on explore.org’s education channel on YouTube.

 

Stuff I wrote in 2018

I was busy on a keyboard this year, even though there were long gaps between posts on this site. In case you missed them, here are the posts that I wrote for explore.org in 2018. They are listed in the order they were posted. My personal favorites include “How does a bear family breakup,” “How many salmon will a bear eat,” “Bearcam live chat surprise,” and “Living with Bears in Churchill.”

  • Brooks River Bear Mating Season: In June, food isn’t the only thing on a bear’s mind.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: 503: Emancipated from his adopted mom in the spring of 2016, bear 503, also known as Cubadult, has quickly grown into an energetic and often playful young adult.
  • Early June at Brooks Falls:  Standing at the falls from early to mid June is an exercise in patience and an opportunity to reflect on the changes soon to come.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: The Elders of Brooks River: Their longevity of Brooks River’s oldest bears demonstrates a level of individual success few bears achieve.
  • The Mouth of Brooks River: The lower river cams provide expansive views, colorful sunrises and sunsets, as well as the opportunity to see many yearly and seasonal changes.
  • What to Look for 2018: The Bear Hierarchy: Watching the ebb and flow of the hierarchy allows us to at least partly understand the conflict and challenges faced by bears.
  • Bear 856: On Top Again: Bear 856 appears to be big enough and healthy enough to show the river’s other adult male bears he’s ready to compete once again.
  • Death of a Bear Cub at Brooks River: As the smallest and most vulnerable of all bears, first year cubs (also called spring cubs or cubs-of-the-year) face significant risks and challenges, not the least of which are larger bears.
  • Dumpling Mountain Hike: Rising over 2000 feet above Brooks River, Dumpling Mountain offers anyone a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of Brooks Camp. Each time I hike on it, I get an opportunity to see the land in a new way.
  • Four Cubs for 402 Again: No matter this family’s fate, we can marvel at 402’s determination to follow her maternal instincts in an attempt raise another generation of Brooks River’s bears.
  • How Does a Bear Family Breakup? Until somewhat recently, I stated that 402 had “abandoned” her yearling (now known as 503). While this might be true in a sense, I no longer think that this is an accurate way of describing the event. After reading more about the emancipation process, I’ve come to believe 402 didn’t abandon her yearling in 2014. She emancipated him.
  • How Many Salmon will a Bear Eat? We often observe bears partake in marathon fishing sessions at Brooks Falls, so how much can they eat in a day or season? Quite a lot.
  • Salmon on the Underwater Bearcam: The calmer, deeper water near the outlet of Brooks River provides salmon with a temporary refuge that is relatively safe and costs them little energy.
  • 451 and Her Yearlings: 451 is currently raising her second litter, and it’s easy to see that the family is skinner than many of the other bears on the bearcams.
  • Bearcam Line of Sight: Where are the bearcams and where, specifically, do they look?
  • Brooks Falls Trail: Simply walking to Brooks Falls can be an exciting and memorable experience and allows great opportunities to explore a changing habitat.
  • Mid Summer Change at Brooks River: Are fewer bears at Brooks River a sign of change?
  • An Exceptional August: Regarding bear activity at Brooks River, August 2018 has been exceptional.
  • Fishing By Snorkeling: Efficient and effective, snorkeling is one of the best strategies to scavenge fish.
  • Can a Bear be Too Fat? When you see bears whose stomachs appear to drag on the ground, one wonders if a bear can grow too fat for its own good.
  • Bearcam Live Chat Surprise: “This being a live broadcast it’s entirely possible…a bear could walk through the screen at any time. So if we have to exit or end the broadcast abruptly that’s probably why.”
  • Fat Bear Week Quarterfinal Preview: The competition just keeps getting bigger.
  • Mike Fitz’s Favorite Bearcam Moments of 2018: Here are a few of my favorite bear cam moments for 2018.
  • Evidence of Rapid Change in Katmai: the Ukak and Savonoski Rivers spill across a broad, 1.5-mile wide delta. In a landscape often defined by change, this is one of the most dynamic places in Katmai National Park.
  • 2018’s Top Ten Bearcam Moments: the people have spoken! Bearcam viewers have chosen the top ten bearcam moments of 2018. Each moment is unique and significant for a different reason.
  • Living with Bears in Churchill: The confluence of bears and people in this remote community has created a special set of challenges, which can only be met through the town’s willingness to tolerate the largest four-legged predator on Earth.

The Origin of an Alpine Lake

Despite the area’s formidable topography, the North Cascades are filled with lakes. On a hike late last summer, I glimpsed how many of them formed.

Monogram Lake sits in a small basin perched a few thousand feet above Cascade River. At this elevation, just shy of 5,000 feet above sea level, it’s surrounded by blueberry meadows and scattered woodlands of mountain hemlock and Pacific silver fir. It’s an inviting place to camp for a couple of nights, no matter if you want to lounge by the lakeside or strengthen your quads further by climbing to the surrounding ridges.

small lake surrounded by meadows and mountains

I hiked there late last August hoping to watch black bears feeding on blueberries. The blueberries were reaching peak ripeness when I arrived, but I found no black bears or even any fresh bear sign, so instead of relaxing at the lake I decided to explore the surround terrain and take in some of the iconic alpine views that make the North Cascades so famous.

Not having a specific destination in mind, I was free to wander. These are my most favorite hikes, when I travel more to see what might lie in front of me instead fixating on a pre-determined destination.

Bushwhacking around the lake, I passed through quiet sedge-filled wetlands…

sedge meadow and small pond in mountain basin

…stopped frequently to eat blueberries…

blueberry plants with ripe blueberries

…wandered over a gently sloping boulder field…

meadow and boulder field looking up to a mountain ridge

…to a glacier tucked in a pocket just south of Little Devil Peak.

small, mostly snow free glacier tucked in a basin below a mountain peak

Here, I ate my lunch while contemplating the scene. It was a near perfect analog for the formation of the Monogram Lake basin.

Glaciers form when snow is compressed into mostly air-free ice and attains enough mass to deform and flow. Under the influences of gravity, ice deformation (high pressure within a glacier causes deeply buried ice to behave plastically), and lubrication from water at the its bed, glaciers move along the paths of least resistance. Due to their mass and size, they become powerful agents of erosion. They entrain rock, sand, and anything else as they flow. Forced along by moving ice, rocks at a glacier’s bed are especially erosive. Glacial erosion mills rock so effectively that much is pulverized into a microscopic powder called rock flour. This is the substance that gives glacial runoff it’s milky appearance and can color lakes turquoise.

Where ice had only recently receded at this particular glacier, the bedrock recorded plenty of evidence of the glacier’s past movement.

hiking pole lying on bare rock. Rock shows faint horizontal striations.

Many faint striations were scored into the bedrock near the glacier. The striations run roughly parallel to the hiking pole.

concentric gouges in metamorphic rock

Chatter marks are small, crescentic grooves formed in bedrock by rocks frozen in ice. The rocks chip the glacier’s bed as they are forced forward. The convex face of the marks point in the direction of movement.

Since glacial erosion is most pronounced at a glacier’s base, if topography forces ice through a pinch point then it causes the glacier to carve the underlying land more deeply and quickly than at the glacier’s sides, a process called overdeepening. As ice retreats, overdeepened basins often fill with water. This is the origin of fjords and deep lake basins as well as cirques high on mountainsides.

Monogram Lake occupies a cirque, a half open and steep-sided valley or basin on the side of a mountain. Instead of a clear lake surrounded by meadows, it was once filled with ice just like the basin below Little Devil Peak.

View looking toward a lake in a glacial cirque. Deep valley and snow covered peaks on horizon.

Monogram Lake

view of glacier in mountain basin. Snow covered mountains on horizon.

The glacier south of Little Devil Peak as seen from an unnamed peak above Monogram Lake.

Uniformitarianism is a geologic principle that, in sum, means the key to interpreting the past is to understand processes that occur today. Excluding the three hydroelectric reservoirs in the Skagit Valley, glaciers carved the basins for nearly every lake in North Cascades National Park and Lake Chelan National Recreation area. Even though I wasn’t around to see Monogram Lake emerge in the wake of glacial retreat, all the evidence I needed for this process was right before me.

Return to Bearcam 2018

As many readers of this blog are aware, one of my favorite places in the world is Brooks River in Katmai National Park. There, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, brown bears and salmon gather to create one of the most iconic scenes in America’s national parks.

many bears standing and fishing near a waterfall

Brooks Falls on a busy evening

 

I’m pleased to announce that through the generosity of explore.org, I’ve received a fellowship to work with Katmai’s bearcams, live streaming webcams of at Brooks River.

In conjunction with Katmai’s park rangers, I’ll write blog posts (which you can read on explore.org and Medium), chat frequently in the bearcam comments, and host live chats and play-by-play style broadcasts. I hope to make time to write about my other explorations on this blog as well.

Bearcam season is almost upon us. Webcam technicians are at Brooks River now, upgrading the webcams for a better live cam streaming experience. The first sockeye salmon should arrive at Brooks River in a matter of days and the bears will arrive soon after. This will be an exciting summer, so please join me here and on bearcam.

To Change or Not To Change: A National Park Question

Last year, Isle Royale National Park released a draft plan to determine whether and how to stabilize the park’s wolf population. After evaluating the merits of several alternatives, weeding through public feedback, and with only two wolves remaining, the park has decided to introduce 20-30 wolves over a three-year period. In the park’s decision, managers have affirmed their belief that wolves on Isle Royale are an irreplaceable part of the ecosystem, and their loss is unacceptable.

Parks are being increasingly managed for change, but the myth of national parks as static vignettes of primitive America remains pervasive. As I wrote on this issue last year, parks are not pure. We live in an era of unprecedented change, and situations like Isle Royale’s will only become more common.

The National Park Service has made strides toward acknowledging that parks will change, but it’s time to put a greater effort into planning for it. To help the public better understand the dynamic nature of national parks and their significance—what we’re willing to save and what we’re willing to let go—there should be an effort across the NPS to identify at-risk resources and decide whether to protect them. Resources to protect would be species, habitats, and processes that if lost would impair the significance of the park or reduce biodiversity. This could help guide current and future management of parks, leading the NPS to implement preventative or prescriptive actions to stave off unacceptable impairment instead of waiting until it’s nearly too late.

In areas with endemic or endangered species—such as Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, and Channel Islands—it may be most appropriate to manage against change to mitigate the risk of losing unique habitats or species to extinction.

In other areas where forest compositions will shift, it may be more appropriate to let change happen as long as native biodiversity is protected.

view of tundra and shrubs with mountains and lake in background

In Katmai National Park, shrubs and trees now grow at higher elevations compared to 100 years ago.

view of mountain scenery with craggy peaks and snowfields.

Should this view be protected or should tree be allowed to encroach on the scene? At North Cascades National Park, tree line is expected to rise in elevation which may threaten views like this one near Cascade Pass. Forests in this park, especially at low elevations, are also projected to burn more frequently under a warmer climate.

Importantly, this planning effort could help the public better understand decisions like Isle Royale’s, which seems inconsistent and arbitrary to many people who commented on the plan.

Biologists predict wolves will be extirpated from Isle Royale within a few years without direct intervention, but why intervene on the behalf of wolves at all? Wolves, as a species, don’t need Isle Royale to survive. As the NPS reasons, it’s less for them, and more for the park. Without wolves climate change would have a greater influence on the archipelago. Plant communities would shift dramatically under heavy browsing pressure from moose, causing a cascade of effects and perhaps, according the park’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, become less resilient.

“Under alternative A, increased [moose browsing] is probable and combined with climate change effects, it is likely that the rate of vegetation changes would be exacerbated and potentially accelerated. Additionally, it is expected that the resiliency of current wildlife populations to change would be reduced and contribute to more rapid population swings. Under alternative B [the preferred alternative] and C, it is expected that the project [sic] warming trends influences [sic] on the island would be less likely to be compounded by herbivory and its associated impacts.” (Pg. V)

Scenarios like Isle Royale’s will only become more common as we continue to fragment habitat, introduce invasive species, and change the climate. Not that I want it to be this way. Ideally park ecosystems would remain healthy enough and function normally enough so native species and biodiversity are protected without our heavy-handedness, but unless we shift our priorities dramatically then we’ll find ourselves stepping in at ever increasing rates.

We can no longer afford to think of parks as museums. What exists in them exists because we, directly or indirectly, choose it. In the face of unprecedented change, national parks cannot remain static. It wasn’t feasible in the past and it’s increasingly infeasible now. Where do we draw the line and how do we intervene? That’s something we need to decide right now—nationwide, collectively, and not in a piecemeal manner.

 

A Winter Cycling in Death Valley

Author’s note: Over ten years ago, I wrote this essay about my cycling experiences at Death Valley. In it you may notice a bias against car travel because I wrote it for a cycling audience in mind, particular those who travel by bicycle. I even pitched it to a cycling magazine (they liked it but needed more quality photos).

I continue to ride my bicycle a lot, and I highly encourage everyone to do so (it’s better for you and the Earth), but over time I’ve come to realize that I should be less judgmental of people who experience parks in different ways than me. Still, I chose not to edit this essay—even though it could certainly use it, especially stylistically. With that being said, here it is, unadulterated and unedited.


I had never been anywhere this windy. I was out for a leisurely overnight trip from Furnace Creek in the heart of Death Valley to the town of Shoshone and back. All went well during this ride—my legs felt strong but worked, I was able to relax, the temperature warmed to a comfortable level (it was December), and I was surrounded the whole way by beautiful scenery. All went well, that is, until the wind hit me like a punch in the face.

Visibility was great earlier that day, and the wind was mostly calm. I could see fifty miles to the north along the wide-open expanse of the valley floor, but there appeared to be a haze obscuring the most distant mountains. My attention was repeatedly drawn back to this haze because it was moving closer. As I rode north, it moved south further obscuring the horizon. By the late afternoon, it was easy to see what was approaching, one of Death Valley’s infamous wind storms.

I’m slow on my bicycle and even more so when it is loaded down with camping gear. The windstorm, if it had any malicious intent, couldn’t have chosen a better time to try and wipe me out. It was late afternoon. I had already ridden sixty miles and my energy levels were dropping. Home was only a dozen or so miles away but the wind forced me to drop into the granny gear. Then it blew even harder. Sand stung my face and dust irritated my eyes. I felt like I was trying to pedal through water. I gave up riding a few miles from home and started to walk.

View of dust storm approaching from right.

A dust storm blows across Death Valley.

That day was rough, as were many others, but I always felt compelled to go back out. After all, there was a 3.3 million acre national park surrounding me. In many areas of the United States, the winters may be soaking wet or too cold to bicycle. Occasionally those things can combine to make Death Valley a not-so-fun place to ride. The odds of that happening, however, are very much against it.

It was an easy choice for me to not bring a car to Death Valley National Park, because I don’t own one. I had lived without a car in remote areas of New Mexico and Washington State before, but still I was a little apprehensive about living and working in Death Valley without the ease an automobile would provide (the supermarket lies sixty miles distant from Furnace Creek). It’s not uncommon to read about a car being a “must have” in order to visit and explore Death Valley. For typical national park visitors, this is true. However, I don’t consider touring cyclists to be typical visitors. Without a car, and on a bicycle, is one of the best ways to experience this park.

On average Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in the United States. The books written about it are full of superlatives describing its extreme heat and changes of elevation. The Badwater Basin, elevation -282 feet, is the lowest dry land point in North America. Telescope Peak, the park’s highest point at elevation 11049 feet, looks right down upon Badwater from its western foothold. Temperatures exceeding 120° F are routine anywhere in the valley during the height of summer. The earth’s second hottest temperature ever recorded, 134° F, was measured at Furnace Creek*.

Those are a couple of the most notable features of Death Valley National Park, but during the five months I spent there I discovered that there were many things rewarding to find, and most of those things I would have missed if I hadn’t been riding my bicycle.

I would have missed the level of fitness Death Valley propelled me to. I spent the previous winter and summer in one of the flatter portions of Maine. Cycling there kept me fit, but not like Death Valley. When you’re in the valley, especially at Badwater, there’s only one-way to go—up. The easiest way out of the Death Valley is on a road that climbs over 3000 feet in 20 miles. That’s the pass that I tackled first. From there, the roads became more challenging and exciting. Days riding with 4000 feet and 5000 feet of elevation gain, or more, became common. Whether or not I was loaded up with camping gear or out just for a day ride didn’t matter. The challenge was always there. Over the course of the season, I pounded at the roads daring gravity to slow me down. Of course gravity did its job, but with each passing week my legs became stronger, mountain passes became less daunting, and the return trips down those monster climbs became more rewarding.

That’s something else I would have missed without my bike, the challenge and reward of it all. How far could I safely ride this day or that? What discoveries does that canyon next to the road offer? I found that some days were devoted to cycling, some were devoted to hiking, and some were devoted to both.

I sometimes carried my hiking boots, daypack, lots of water, and trusty bike lock in a couple of panniers. After finding a suitable road sign near a promising destination or hiking route, I would lock my bicycle to the signpost confident that bicycle thieves probably were not perusing the roads. After that, it was just a matter of hiking in.

I wandered to some spectacular places on those days—canyons with waterfalls (yes, even waterfalls can be found in Death Valley if you know where to look), mountain peaks, and the ruins of mining operations gone bust. The lack of daylight during the winter months was limiting however, even more so than my energy levels on some days. I would regretfully leave the mountaintop I reached or the deep canyon I was sheltered in only to be surprised by what I could find while cycling back home.

Without my bicycle, I would’ve missed the surprises that even the ordinary roadsides offered. It was sometimes as simple as being surprised by how different the land looked under different light, how hard cycling can be when you just don’t feel as energized as you wish you were, or sometimes it was just the simple presence of wildflowers that surprised me.

Obviously, Death Valley is a very dry place. Furnace Creek averages less than two inches of rainfall per year. Plant life is not abundant. Occasionally though, winter rains can help produce spectacular flower blooms during the late winter and spring seasons. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those winters. Hardly any rain fell, even by Death Valley standards. However, some areas did receive a light rain shower or two. Annual and perennial plants will respond to such things in due time. I must admit, I’m a bit of plant nerd and easily get distracted by things such as roadside wildflowers. Still, it may seem oxymoronic to go to Death Valley to see wildflowers, but in the right place at the right time of the year flowers can appear.

Along a road I pedaled numerous times, light rain had fallen months before. When I came back that way early in March, I was surprised to see the diversity and results of that rain. That day I was sailing down the road on its 6% grade until I noticed the scattering of flowers along the shoulder. I was distracted and surprised enough by them that I barely covered a mile in the next hour. These flowers didn’t produce much along the lines of lushness, but the land no longer felt as desolate as before.

I couldn’t say the same for other areas of the park. “No Services Next 54 Miles.” “No Services Next 72 Miles.” These were some of the road signs I encountered in the Death Valley region. Remoteness and desolation were in no short supply, and that’s part of why people are fascinated with this place. Other than roads, Death Valley has very few developed areas. Yes, there certainly are the typical campgrounds, restaurants, and trinket shops one expects to see in a national park, but the lack of water mercifully limits these services to a very limited number of places. Away from those places, nothing seems to stop the desolation and expansiveness of this place.

The Harrisburg Flats, which the Emigrant Canyon Road crosses, was once the site of a thriving mining community, and like most mining towns in the area it went bust. Now, not much more than rusting tin cans scattered amongst the low shrubs reveal the town’s location. This area, with its evidence of people come and gone and its lack of people today, filled me with the sense that this is about as lonely and desolate of an area as I’ve ever visited.

I cycled up the long haul through Emigrant Canyon for miles and miles to this point with only a handful of automobiles passing by. When I reached the Harrisburg Flats, ten then twenty minutes came and went between cars. I was alone. The old tin cans didn’t offer any company and neither did the northern harrier and the golden eagle I spotted flying nearby. This certainly was a desolate spot, but a blissful one as well. If I had reached this spot in a car after an hour of driving, instead of several hours of pedaling, the emotion of the moment would have been lost. It’s a moment I sometimes think about when streets are crowded and society is noisy.

A lot would be lost without exploring this park on a bicycle. Even the wind added to the experience. The same wind that forced me to walk my bike and flung dirt in my eyes and mouth made plenty of noise. It howled through the edges of the doors and windows of my home. It roared across my ears when I cycled drowning out almost all other sound. But when the wind quit, which it often does (trust me), the silence of Death Valley took over.

During one wonderfully calm day, in the midst of a ride that climbs a vertical mile from Furnace Creek to Dante’s View, I was fortunate to discover just how quiet Death Valley really is. Few cars had passed by me that day in November, which certainly was welcome. However, it wasn’t the lack of cars that I discovered that day. What struck me the most was the immense silence. As I ascended the last few miles to Dante’s View, I only heard two things: the sound of my tires gripping the pavement and my heart pounding in my chest. After I stopped and rested, I didn’t even hear those things.

View of salt flats and mountains

Looking into Death Valley from Dante’s View.

Minus forests, abundant streams, and maybe a conveniently placed bicycle shop, Death Valley offers all a cyclist could want. Ascents of challenging mountain passes, the land’s vast and subtle beauty, the isolation and desolation, the new discoveries, even the wind—it was always these things that brought me back out to ride again. You can even find trees and water if you look for them. Would I have experienced all of these things if I was traveling by automobile? Possibly. Would they have been as fulfilling? Never. The views were never as grand, the flowers never as pretty, and the wind never blew as hard as it did when I was riding my bicycle.

*This is now considered the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

Hey National Parks: You Need More Webcams

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a place of unparalleled resources. It’s studded with over a dozen active volcanoes and protects the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century. Its lakes and rivers are swarmed annually by millions of salmon. Abundant food and an undeveloped landscape provides habitat for over 2,000 brown bears, more than any other national park. For 9,000 years people have made it their home, adapting to the landscape’s constant change and challenges.

pumice covered landscape with volcano in background

Mount Griggs towers behind Baked Mountain in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

As a park, it’s very remote and expensive to experience. Its coastline, measuring over 400 miles, and almost all of the rest of the 4.1 million-acre park remain roadless. For nearly a century after its establishment, Katmai was only accessible to people who could afford to visit and were physically capable of doing so. Webcams (bearcams) changed that.

Webcams allowed Katmai National Park to democratize itself, providing audiences all over the world with meaningful opportunities to connect with the park, especially its bears, and build stewards on a global scale. Survey results* indicate watching the bearcams increased viewer interest in Katmai and wildlife conservation, and viewers’ interest in national parks and wildlife conservation is on par with on-site visitors. Essentially, webcams can inspire stewardship on the same level as a physical visit to a park. They are powerful interpretive tools with great potential to increase awareness, understanding, and stewardship of wildlife and conservation areas. Yet, national parks rarely utilize webcams to their full potential and online audiences are either ignored or deemed secondary to on-site visitors. This needs to change.

bear sitting on rock in river

Bear 708 Amelia sits on a rock–a typical scene on Katmai’s webcams.

Inspired by the success of Katmai’s webcams and to communicate the need to utilize them in more places, I’ll be leading a session at the 2017 National Association of Interpretation Conference. Roy Wood, Katmai’s former Chief of Interpretation and the current Chief of Interpretation and Education at Shenandoah National Park, and Ryan Sharp, Assistant Professor of Park Management and Conservation at Kansas State University will join me. Roy and I will discuss our methods to interpret bears, salmon, and other park resources to online audiences. Ryan will present survey results exploring the online bear viewing experience at Katmai and its influence on support for bear conservation and management.

screen shot of description of conference presentation

If you’re interested in watching but can’t  attend, don’t worry. A presentation about Katmai’s bearcams wouldn’t be complete if it wasn’t streamed live on bearcam. That’s why I made tentative plans with explore.org, who hosts and funds Katmai’s webcams, to live stream the presentation. The session begins at 10:45 a.m. PT on November 16.

In the age of internet and social media, traditional interpretive programs catering solely to on-site visitors (through guided walks, ranger-led talks, slide shows, etc.) are no longer adequate to build and maintain widespread stewardship for parks and other conservation areas. When I worked at Katmai National Park, I was amazed, awestruck really, at the reach and effectiveness of the bearcams. Nearly everyday, I could find evidence of people connecting in meaningful ways with Katmai’s wildlife. Katmai is better protected today than it was even ten years ago due to the awareness and understanding its webcams have brought to people around the world.

The bearcams annually reach tens of millions of people worldwide. With effective interpretation, webcams consistently and positively engage viewers, increase public awareness and stewardship of wildlife, expand messaging to pre and post on-site visitors, and extend interpretive messages to audiences worldwide. Existing technology now provides conservation organizations with the ability to reach people all over the world, not just those who are fortunate enough to visit. We need more webcams and more rangers on them. This is how parks take their message to the world.

Update (Nov. 17, 2017): A replay of my presentation is now online.

Download the slide presentation in PowerPoint (199 MB) or Keynote (127 MB).

*Sharp, Ryan, J. Skibins, and J. Sharp. Online and onsite brown bear viewing: Influence on visitors’ support for conservation-based management at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Unpublished Report to Katmai National Park and Preserve. Kansas State University. Jan. 23, 2017.

Restoring Grizzlies is not a Threat to Wilderness

Wilderness Watch, a non-profit advocacy and watchdog group for the National Wilderness Preservation System, opposes active restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem. While their strict adherence to wilderness values is laudable, in this case it could lead to the extirpation of grizzlies from the ecosystem. Arbitrary wilderness values are not more important than the restoration of grizzlies.

Wilderness, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Importantly, the Wilderness Act states wilderness areas also preserve “wilderness character,” a set of values that link wilderness conditions with legislative intent. Federal land management agencies must manage wilderness so it maintains all aspects of wilderness character. Wilderness must remain untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, provide opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, and protect other features of value.

Bare mountain peak with lake below

Green view lake sits below Goode Mountain in the Stephen Mather Wilderness, North Cascades National Park.

Any ecosystem manipulation in designated wilderness will affect some of these values, especially during the effort to restore grizzlies. Specifically, the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan will temporarily trammel the land by manipulating a species’ population. Additionally, helicopters flights can impact opportunities for solitude, and tracking collars on bears will affect the wilderness’s naturalness and undeveloped characteristics. For these reasons, Wilderness Watch advocates for a natural recovery alternative, which would allow bears to return on their own and offer the greatest adherence to wilderness character and values. They state:

  • Information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border where two moderately sized provincial parks provide some protection for the bears.
  • For dubious reasons, a natural recovery alternative was rejected for further analysis. Instead, the DEIS considers only heavy-handed management alternatives.
  • The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers. This heavy-handed management would be detrimental to Wilderness and bears alike.
  • None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.

However, some of these assertions are incorrect. There is a “natural recovery alternative” in the draft restoration plan. It’s the no action alternative, or Alternative A. This alternative may need further revision to achieve Wilderness Watch’s goals, but it hasn’t been rejected for further analysis or excluded. Perhaps most importantly, if Wilderness Watch’s position is adopted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it will likely lead to the extirpation of grizzlies in the ecosystem, where only six bears are thought to remain (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 90).

Grizzly bears are not doing well in southwestern British Columbia. Adjacent populations to the north are only slightly more numerous. Fewer than 30 grizzlies are estimated to live within the Stein-Nahatlatch and Garibaldi-Pitt areas (interactive map of grizzly populations in British Columbia). Under current conditions, no grizzly population in Canada or the U.S. is likely to expand and occupy the North Cascades region (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 88-89).

Alt Text: Map of Grizzly Bear Population Status in British Columbia (Red=Extirpated, Yellow=Threatened, Green=Viable)

This map shows the current status of grizzly bear populations in British Columbia. Many areas of B.C. have healthy populations of grizzlies, but every population in southwest B.C. is either threatened or already extirpated. Red Circle is approximate area of North Cascades ecosystem.

Wilderness Watch is correct when they write, “None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.” In this case, helicopters and intensive management of translocated bears would impact the area’s wilderness character. The impacts may be unavoidable, but under certain conditions wilderness character can be manipulated for safety and management needs (i.e. invasive species removal). The NPS and USFWS would need to diligently consider ways to minimize impacts.

Anyone who is willing to share the ecosystem with bears and also wishes to preserve wilderness character should support Alternative B in the draft restoration plan, which proposes to introduce a small number of grizzly bears into the area, monitor them, then reevaluate whether more bears should be introduced. This offers the best compromise, in my opinion, between the no action (natural restoration) alternative and other options (alternatives C and D) that are much more heavy handed.

Wilderness and wilderness character is worth protecting. Groups like Wilderness Watch should continue to be a watchdog for designated wilderness. Yet, the effort to restore a healthy, self-sustaining population of grizzlies in North Cascades transcends arbitrary wilderness values. Bears need wild areas more than people.

I wish we could step back and let grizzly bears restore themselves. Nothing I’ve read indicates that’s a successful solution though. The North Cascades ecosystem was identified as one of six recovery zones for grizzlies in the Lower 48 partly because of its large, natural, and healthy wilderness areas. Bears can survive here, if we give them a push. I believe we can sacrifice a bit of our cultural need for an idealized, untrammeled wilderness to benefit grizzly bears. If we don’t act, if we allow grizzlies to disappear, then that would be one of the greatest trammels of all.

You can submit comments on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan through April 28, 2017.

Related Posts:
Stehekin Grizzly Bear Meeting
Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

Of Bears and Bicycles

bear tracks on dirt road. bike wheel in right foreground.

Sometimes bears like to use roads as much as people, giving new meaning to the “share the road” concept.

While enjoying a quiet bicycle ride on a remote road you surprise a large animal in the brush. A split second later, you realize the seriousness of the situation, because you didn’t surprise just any animal. You surprised a bear. Would you be prepared to respond appropriately? What can cyclists do to reduce risky bear encounters?

Some of North America’s most amazing cycling destinations are located in bear country—Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada, and the Great Lakes region. I’ve lived, worked, and cycled extensively in bear country and I love it. I’ve commuted by bicycle at Yellowstone National Park. I’ve toured in the Appalachians, Rockies, and Cascades where bears are frequently seen. When I worked at Katmai National Park, Alaska, I had hundreds of encounters with brown bears, and I frequently saw them while riding the park’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road. Each experience taught me to fear bears less and respect them more. Cyclists can safely enjoy riding in bear country, but there is risk involved. However, the risk is manageable with the right knowledge, prevention, and preparation.

bear walking on dirt road through forest

Cyclists need to be prepared for bear encounters. I found this bear walking toward me while I pedaled the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road.

Cycling in bear country creates two main issues. First, bicycles are usually quiet and often travel at high speed increasing the possibility of surprising bears. Secondly, many touring cyclists prefer to camp, and while camping isn’t the problem, if you’re camping in bear country then the good campsite you found is often located in good bear habitat.

Warning noise is one of the easiest precautions to take in bear country. Given enough notice, many bears will avoid people. Noise is not a safety net though, just a preventative measure so you don’t surprise a bear. It must be made appropriately and for the right reasons. It’s especially useful in areas where visibility is limited, and it’s easy too. Use your voice or a loud bike bell. Those cheap bear bells may save your vocal chords for campfire songs later in the evening, but they aren’t nearly loud enough in most situations to adequately warn bears. More importantly, bears may not identify any bell’s sound with people. You need to make noise to warn bears of your approach and identify yourself as human. No bell is as effective as the human voice. It’s no fun to shout all day, nor is it an action that fits well in all settings, so vary the amount of warning noise as necessary.

If you need an excuse to slow down during a ride, bears can be it. Excessive speed was one of the main factors that led to a fatal mauling of a mountain biker in Montana. Ride cautiously where bears are frequently seen, avoid biking during hours when bears are less likely to expect encounters with people, and pay attention to your surroundings. On the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road, a road that averages less than five vehicle trips a day in summer, I’m forced to ride slowly because too many bears use it to allow for a purely fitness ride. This is torturous for certain cyclists, myself included on occasion, but bears necessitate it. If I want to ride responsibly here, I must slow down.

Take the time to assess the terrain. Are you approaching the crest of a hill, a sharp bend, or is the road carved through thick brush? Will you be traveling through areas with food sources, like berries or salmon, that attract bears? This may seem like a mental burden that will cause a headache by the end of the day, but cyclists practice this risk assessment all of the time. While riding in traffic we identify and respond to unsafe situations routinely. Bears pose different challenges than cars, I realize, but trust your instincts. Slow down and give yourself time to use them.

Bear walking on dirt road through forest.

This bear in Katmai was intent on using the road. To safely avoid a stressful encounter with him I stopped, picked my bike up, carried it off of the road and well into the forest to let the bear pass. Had I been traveling too fast, I would have risked surprising the bear at a very close range.

black bear walking on dirt road through forest

I let this black bear in North Cascades National Park know I was human by talking in a normal tone of voice. Once the bear realized I was human, he walked calmly into the forest.

Statistically speaking, groups of four or more people are very safe in bear country. So if the thought of encountering a bear alone is too intimidating, then join a group ride and stay close together. Group size is not effective if the group is spread so far apart that a bear only recognizes individual persons. Groups tend to be noisier and have lots of eyes to spot wildlife. Plus, during a bear encounter, a mass of humanity is intimidating to even the biggest bear.

With that being said, what should you do during a close encounter? Things can get complicated quickly and adrenaline will certainly rush, so prepare yourself mentally before you leave home. The key, according to Tammy Olson, a former wildlife biologist for Katmai National Park, “is to not behave in ways that are likely to be perceived as threatening when responding to a [defensive] bear at close range.”

How close is too close? The answer depends on a variety of factors (the presence of cubs, the vicinity of food like animal carcasses, the bear’s human-habituation level and disposition, surprise, and more). There are general recommendations to follow, but each bear is an individual and each situation is unique. A Yellowstone grizzly shouldn’t be treated like a Pennsylvania black bear. Talk with local officials about the general patterns of bear use and behavior in the area you plan on traveling through. Some areas, especially national parks, have regulations that define the minimum, legal distance to keep between yourself and a bear (50 yards at Katmai, 100 yards at Yellowstone, and 300 yards at Denali). These can be a useful, but not absolute, starting point to determine if you are too close. As a general rule, if you are altering the bear’s behavior, then you are too close.

Any time you find yourself in close quarters with a bear, stop riding and take a few seconds to assess the situation. Position your bicycle between you and the bear. As well as possibly adding a modicum of physical protection, the bike makes you look larger in a non-threatening way. Size matters in the bear world. This is why groups of people are generally safer in bear encounters than a lone person.

If you surprise a bear while bicycling, quickly assess the situation. What is the bear doing? Is it resting, feeding, approaching you, or showing signs of stress? Do you see or hear cubs? Is the bear vocalizing? Were you charged? Your behavior in these situations goes beyond the scope of this post, but what you see, hear, or think the bear is doing will influence your decision on how to react. (Please see the references at the end of the post for more information on bear behavior, identification, how to differentiate between defensive and predatory encounters, and the recommended responses.)

When you’re on a bike, you’re moving swiftly and you have less time to react than someone who is walking. This is more likely to provoke a charge from defensive bears, especially grizzly bears. If a bear charges you in a defensive, non-predatory situation, it is usually a bluff. Even so, this is a frightening experience. Hold your ground. Running or pedaling away may trigger the bear to chase you, and you can’t outrun a bear. Keep your bicycle with you if possible. Abandoning the bike, especially if there’s food in your panniers, can teach bears to approach people for another food reward.

Yelling at a defensive bear may provoke it further. Instead, talk to the bear calmly and back away slowly until the bear resumes its normal behavior (resting, feeding, traveling). Contact is rare, so only play dead if a bear makes physical contact with you. If it does, lie face down and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Remain still and quiet until the bear leaves the area. (Black bears attacks are very rare, but are much more likely to be predatory, so most bear behavior experts recommend you fight back if a black bear attacks.)

Sometimes you may see a bear before it is aware of you. If this happens, move away quietly the way you came and give the animal the room it needs. Find an appropriate place to observe it, where possible, and enjoy the moment. It’ll certainly be one you won’t forget.

Your goal should be to prevent close encounters. This is just as important when camping as it is when riding. At the end of a long day of bicycle touring, is there anything more satisfying than a beautiful campsite with a hot meal? Maybe not, but before you commit yourself to that wonderful campsite, take a few moments and search for signs of previous bear activity. Is there garbage scattered about from previous campers? Is the campsite near natural food sources that attract bears? Do you see fresh bear scat with human food or garbage in it? If so, consider moving on. You don’t want to risk a food conditioned bear coming into your camp at night.

Bicycle handlebars leaning against tree. Bark has bear fur attached to it.

Look for signs of bears like scat, tracks, and marking trees when you choose a campsite. Move on if the area seems to be frequently used by bears. The bear fur on this marking tree indicates plenty of bruins use the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road.

Most problems with bears while camping can be avoided if bears aren’t attracted to your campsite in the first place. Outside of developed campgrounds, cook and eat well away from your sleeping area (at least 100 yards). This is a Leave No Trace principle everyone should follow, but it also disperses food odors away from your sleeping area.

Consider where and how you plan on preparing your food in the backcountry. Are hot meals important, or would cold dinners and snacks suffice? Eating cold meals and eliminating the need to cook is one easy way to substantially reduce food odors around your camp. There is less to clean and less garbage at the end of the day. If you choose to cook then consider meals that require little field preparation. Touring cyclists don’t normally carry and cook perishable, odorous items like bacon, but anything strongly scented or should be avoided.

Before you leave home, decide how you will store your food and other odorous items like soap and toothpaste. Bear resistant containers (BRCs) are the best and most portable way to keep bears from your food, and in some areas they are required. BRCs lack creases or hinges that allow bears to open them. Yes, they are heavy and bulky, but their effectiveness has been proven repeatedly and backpacking-style BRCs normally fit into a large, rear pannier. The most common alternative, hanging food in a tree, is time consuming and risky. Some bears, especially in the Sierra Nevada, have learned to ignore BRCs but specialize in stealing food hung in trees. Occasionally, developed campgrounds in high bear use areas provide food storage facilities as an alternative to BRCs, but many do not.

Lastly, some people prefer to carry a bear deterrent like bear spray (not self defense spray) or firearms. Neither firearms nor bear spray are 100% effective against bears. I carry bear spray since it is non-lethal, non-toxic, and easy to use. It is intended only for close encounters (generally 30 feet or less) on aggressive or attacking bears. This stuff is potent too, so be careful. I know enough people who have accidentally discharged their bear spray to know you don’t want it in your face or in your pants, as one unfortunate individual at Brooks Camp discovered. Wherever you choose to keep it, bear spray needs to be quickly accessible. When necessary, I carry bear spray in my bike’s handlebar bag. (Thankfully, I’ve never had to use mine.)

There are many bear deterrents, but the greatest of all is your brain. No matter what you do in bear country, where you ride, or what you see, there is no substitute for common sense. We empower ourselves with safe cycling practices in traffic, and we can do the same around bears. The scenario at the beginning of the article isn’t fiction. It happened to me, and it’ll probably happen again. Traveling in bear habitat requires responsibility. Sloppy habits and dirty campsites can endanger future visitors and the lives of bears.

I always look forward to bicycling in bear country, which is some of the most scenic and inspiring land imaginable. Knowledge of and respect for these animals can turn what would be a dangerous and fearful encounter into the highlight of the trip. Given the opportunity, humans, bears, and even bicycles can coexist.

More Bear Safety Information

You can never know too much about bears, but an action appropriate in one region may not be appropriate in another. Talk to local officials about what works and is expected in their area. There is also plenty of contradictory information available about bear safety available online. The information provided in the resources below generally follows the consensus of leading bear biologists and public land managers. Besides learning behavioral techniques that may keep you safe and give you peace of mind, learning about bears and their ecology is fascinating and can open up a world of wonder into their complex lives.

Websites:
Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: The IGBC was established in 1983 to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the Lower 48 states.

Leave No Trace: The seven guiding principles of LNT ethics not only reduce our impact on the outdoors, but also correlate to the best camping practices in bear country.

Yellowstone National Park Bear Safety Pages: These may be the most comprehensive bear safety pages on the web.

Get Bear Smart Society: This organization is dedicated to reducing conflicts between bears and people.

Literature:
Bear Attacks: Their Cause and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero: This is not your typical bear attack book. It written by a wildlife biologist who has statistically analyzed bear attacks across North America. It offers scientifically supported advice for travelers in bear country.

Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters by Dave Smith: Although less academic than Bear Attacks, this is another readable, common sense look at bear identification, behavior, avoidance, safety, and it includes a brief section on mountain biking.

DVD:
Staying Safe in Bear Country: If there was just one resource you could choose to educate yourself on how to behave around grizzly and black bears, this video is near the top of the list. In a no-nonsense fashion, it clearly and accurately explains bear behavior and how people can minimize the chance of bear encounters and attacks. It also provides insightful footage of bear behavior that may be hard to visualize. A transcript is available too.