This may seem non-controversial. After all, wild animal populations are made of individuals just like human families and communities are composed of individual people. But this idea hasn’t been accepted widely among scientists and managers of national parks.
Thankfully that tide seems to be turning, and I’m pleased to be able to contribute to this scientific effort. Results from a survey of bear cam viewers on explore.org show that people who care about Otis and other individual bears are more likely support conservation efforts for brown bears compared to viewers who do said they could not identify individual bears. Please head over to my post on explore.org to learn more.
I’d like to thank the researchers who made this study possible—Jeff Skibins (who drafted this paper and did the data analysis) and Lynne Lewis and Leslie Richardson (who were instrumental in the survey design and implementation). I’d also like to thank the Katmai Conservancy for covering the expense to make the paper available to everyone through open access.
Seventy-nine million salmon returned collectively to Bristol Bay in 2022, setting a new record high for the region. Bristol Bay’s wholly intact watersheds make this possible. Water flows freely from snowmelt-fed rivulets and springs high in the mountains through the chains of lakes that occupy glacially-carved basins and into the lower stems of rivers that empty into the Bering Sea. Adult salmon swim upstream without encountering human-made obstructions or water diversions. And, instead of being displaced by shore-line hardening structures to protect buildings or roads, such as it is throughout much of the U.S. west coast, billions of salmon fry in Bristol Bay find ample refuge in the slack-waters along stream margins, grassy marshes, and lakes. Vast numbers of salmon don’t even see a bridge during their entire lives. The diversity and health of the watersheds make Bristol Bay whole.
I was late to the Pebble fight, only learning about the proposed mine in 2007 during my first summer as a park ranger in Katmai National Park. But many people in the Bristol Bay region have been advocating against Pebble Mine for 20 years. I hope the fishing boat captains and their deck hands; Alaska Native Tribes, village councils, and coalitions; lodge owners, employees, and fishing guides; chefs; scientists; those who work for non-profit and conservation organizations; and many others have the opportunity to rest well for at least a few days now that the threat of the mine is no longer looming. I thank them for their work.
Before I had the fortune of living in the Bristol Bay area, I did not understand—or even fathom—the importance of salmon to place and people. The calendar in Bristol Bay is centered on salmon. The region’s economy is centered on salmon. Its ecology is centered on salmon. And it works, beautifully.
I’ve said many times before that our world is wounded. Too much of humanity seems to have a unique desire and capability to consume land, habitats, material without considering the rights of other creatures or the value that future generations of people might place on those things. I wish I could take everyone to Bristol Bay at the height of the summertime salmon run to see the fishing fleet and processors, to stand on the edge of a river while tens of thousands of salmon swim upstream, to watch brown bears gorge on their most important and sought-after food, to see an ecosystem functioning at its fully realized potential. It just might change your perspective on what should be and what is possible for our world.
In the northern third of Maine spring weather is fitful, and I sometimes wonder if winter will ever break its hold. Eventually, though, usually in mid March, snow cover begins to thin as the sun travels higher in the sky and daylight hours lengthen. Around this time, maple sap runs heavy. As April arrives the hazelnut, speckled alder, and aspen (or “popples” as they are locally called) break bud as the ground thaws in earnest. I might see my first dark-eyed junco of the year about that time, followed by flickers and sapsuckers who drum from the trees as they establish nesting territories. Wood frogs, spring peepers, and salamanders wake from hibernation and migrate to their breeding pools on rainy nights. The warblers return in May along with early ephemeral wildflowers and the first expanding tree leaves in the canopy.
Although I welcome these changes like a reunion with friends, there’s one event beyond any other (even the appearance of biting insects), that to me signals the full arrival of spring—the return of hummingbirds.
On May 12, I was treated to the first hummingbirds of the year at my feeders. Only one hummingbird species, the ruby-throated, nests in the northeast U.S. and southeastern Canada. The ruby-throats that establish summer residency near me may have migrated from wintering areas in Central America, probably by flying over the Gulf of Mexico before making their way farther north.
With a heart that pounds at several hundred beats per minute and wings that buzz at a too-fast-to-see pace, an active hummingbird is a powerful metabolic furnace. While insects and spiders are important foods, the fat and protein the bird ingests from invertebrate prey goes only so far in its effort to sustain their exceptionally high metabolism and energy-intensive flight. An active hummingbird’s metabolism is so high that it must eat about half its body weight in sugar each day, and it digests sugar so rapidly that it essentially refuels in flight.
The energetic costs of this lifestyle are great, so if you are a tiny bird that weighs only a few grams then it pays to be as efficient in your nectar gathering as possible. For a hummingbird, the process begins with an ingenious adaptation of the tongue.
Scientists long assumed that hummingbirds utilized the passive work of capillary action to drink nectar—stick your tongue into a flower, contact nectar with it, and allow the liquid’s surface tension to coat the tongue. However, in a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,* Alejandro Rico-Guevara and Margaret Rubega discovered that that a hummingbird tongue works in a much more efficient manner.
A hummingbird’s tongue is forked, somewhat tubular, and supported by stiff rods. That anatomy has been known for quite some time, but Rico-Guevara and Rubega found that the tongue utilizes no capillary action. Instead it is a shape shifter, a fluid trap, and in the author’s words, “a dynamic liquid trapping device.”
As the bird sticks its tongue out the tips remain adhered together. At this point, it looks like a long pin. Once the tongue contacts nectar, though, the real magic of the tongue’s anatomy begins its work. First, the tongue splits as curved lamellae (parallel hair like structures) along the tongue tips unfurl in the liquid.
As the bird retracts its tongue, the lamellae re-furl over the supporting rods and trap a tube of nectar inside each tongue tip.
Amazingly, the tongue’s transformation and liquid trapping properties are driven not by muscles, but by fluid and gaseous forces acting directly on the tongue. The tongue’s structure is hydrophilic, so when the tongue contacts air the lamellae curl around the nectar and traps it inside. The bird releases the nectar by squeezing and slightly flattening the tongue as it is pulled into the bill.
Nectar can be a difficult to access food. Hummingbirds exploit it like no other bird because they can hover in flight and, as a group, have diverse beak lengths and curvatures to probe flowers of different sizes and shapes. They are also clever enough to trapline—that is, they’ll visit the same food sources like patches of flowers on a regular basis to minimize competition and maximize nectar availability.
But knowing how specialized the hummingbird’s tongue is, I’ll never look at a feeding hummingbird the same way. The hummingbird tongue, long thought to be a passive part of the process, is a superb adaption that plays no small role in helping these tiny birds live a large life.
*The paper is a fascinating bit of natural history and is open-access, so I encourage you to read if you want to learn more about this topic.
I thank the crew at explore.org for helping to produce Bird Week and showcase these wonderful and amazing creatures. I hope you’ve had an opportunity to enjoy some time watching our feathered neighbors. If not, do yourself a favor and make the effort. Even the most common and overlooked birds have incredible stories to tell.
Brooks Falls is, without question, the most famous place in Katmai National Park and one of the most famous wildlife-watching destinations in North America. Even if you can’t place it on a map, you’ve likely seen it in a wildlife film, in a photograph, or on TV. Search “bear catching salmon,” for example, and nearly all of the first 50 photos are of a bear standing on the lip of Brooks Falls.
On a sunny, warm morning in mid July 2021, I arrive at the boardwalk leading to the falls after hiking the short trail through the surrounding spruce forest. It’s a promising time to visit. The early summer sockeye salmon migration is in full swing and hungry bears are eager to catch them. But about halfway along the boardwalk, I realize the chances of reaching the falls in a timely manner are slim. At a covered platform nicknamed the Treehouse, where the boardwalk forks and leads to different viewpoints of the river, there’s a wall of people.
Under the Treehouse roof, about 25 people surround a frazzled park ranger who clutches a metal clipboard. The clipboard and the scribble of names he places on it are the ranger’s only lifeline to a semblance of order—it’s the waitlist for the groups wanting to gain access to the platform overlooking the falls. Like a restaurant maître d’, the ranger greets new arrivals, take their names, and asks others to wait their turn when people fill the Falls platform to its 40-person capacity. He also imposes a one-hour time limit for people at the Falls so that those who are waiting have a chance to go there.
Few people normally hang out at the Treehouse voluntarily, since if offers no lines of sight to the river and its bears. Therefore, the crowd at the Treehouse this morning indicates that the wait time to access the falls is substantial. Having staffed the platforms as a ranger in the past, I don’t wish to add to this ranger’s workload or anyone’s wait time this morning. Instead, I look for space at the adjacent Riffles Platform where rangers don’t manage a specific capacity.
I don’t find much space there either. About 20 people occupy it already. Even more fill in gaps within a few minutes of my arrival as the queue for the Falls platform grows larger. With 40 people at the falls, 25 in the treehouse, 30 or more at the nearby Riffles platform, and surely more to come, I leave for a a less crowded space.
The lower fourth of Brooks River meanders through seasonally flooded marshes and gravel bars before spilling into the glacially-fed and turquoise-colored Naknek Lake, the largest lake wholly contained within any U.S. national park. The lower river offers space and safety for mother bears and their cubs who choose to avoid the risks posed by the larger males fishing at the falls. Young, recently weaned bears also use the area as a place to socialize and graze on tender grass with less risk of encountering a larger, more dominant competitor. It’s also the most ecologically diverse place along the river so even if there are no bears in sight, there’s usually something to catch your eye.
About 20 minutes after leaving the falls boardwalk I arrive at the lower river and station myself on a platform adjacent to the long footbridge that leads to Brooks Lodge and the park visitor center. The perch allows me to see most of the river mouth as well as the meandering reverse S-curve upstream. Few bears use the lower river as I sit, although the vicinity remains filled with activity. A near continuous high-decibel, high-pitched whine fills the air as float planes arrive and taxi to the lakeshore. They disgorge their passengers out of my line of sight, but each plane must’ve been filled to capacity. Over the next hour, I count more than 200 people crossing the bridge toward the falls. Almost none walk in the opposite direction. I sympathize mentally with the Treehouse ranger who is likely clutching his clipboard even more tightly.
Later in the day, another ranger reports to me that the wait to reach the Falls platform exceeded two hours at its peak. In total more than 350 people arrived at Brooks Camp this day, which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s on top of the pilots and guides who brought people here, the 30 people who stayed in the campground, the 50-60 people who stayed in the lodge, the 30 concession employees, and the 20 park staff. Even with my conservative math, about 500 people occupied Brooks Camp, all attempting to share a 1.5 mile-long river corridor with two to three dozen brown bears.
By the end of summer 2021 more than 15,000 people visited Brooks Camp—most of whom arrived in July and all of whom used infrastructure largely designed in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate about half to two-thirds as much at most. It’s double the visitation of 2007, the first year I worked as a ranger at Brooks Camp.
The popularity of national parks is a welcome sign that these spaces are important and meaningful to broad swaths of the public. It wasn’t that long ago, that a National Park Service director wondered aloud whether parks were losing their relevancy. However, at the same time that our national parks experience record high visitation many more people encounter significant barriers that inhibit them from experiencing these places. I might’ve been sharing Brooks River with 500 people that day last July, but millions more are denied the opportunity. In an era of great crowding in our national parks, I wonder, do we have the determination to make parks accessible to everyone?
The first national parks in the United States were protected for their scenic splendor, unique features, and wildlife. Nothing compares to Yellowstone’s geyser basins, Yosemite’s towering granitic cliffs, or Sequoia’s majestic trees. However, broad public support for these areas in the late 1800s was lacking. Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite and Mount Rainier—the first four national parks created by Congress—were remote and difficult to access. Upon their establishment, they lacked the facilities and basic infrastructure necessary to accommodate large numbers of people. Even so, the park boosters, advocates, and visitors who had experienced these landscapes understood they were special places.
To build a constituency for parks and facilitate a national park experience for more people, the earliest park managers built roads, trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers. They hired rangers. They allowed concessioners to build and operate hotels, lodges, restaurants, and trinket shops. After Congress established the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, the fledging agency doubled down on infrastructure development. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration constructed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of trails and roads within park boundaries. Soon after, a post-WWII travel boom highlighted a need to modernize parks and accommodate a tsunami of people (visitation to all national parks combined increased from about 3.5 million to almost 30 million between 1931 and 1948). The effort was sanctioned by Congress in 1956 through the Mission 66 program, a 10-year-long and billion-dollar plan to expand and modernize facilities and infrastructure in national parks.
Making parks physically accessible to greater numbers of travelers established the experiential paradigm that national parks function within today. Namely, a physical visit to a park inspires people and leads them to become park stewards and supporters.
The effort, it can be convincingly argued, worked. More people visited. More people had great experiences. More people cared for parks. It helped fuel a burgeoning environmental awareness and protection movement. The paradigm, it seemed, had created more stewards than ever before. But not everyone was pleased with the trajectory of tourism in national parks.
In Desert Solitaire, one of Ed Abbey’s most well known essays is “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and National Parks.” Much of the book and “Polemic,” especially, is based on Abbey’s experience working as a ranger at then Arches National Monument in the 1950s, a time before pavement bisected the little visited park in southeast Utah.
Abbey seemed to enjoy his job. He muses something that probably every ranger, including me, has thought at one time or another: “On the rare occasions when I peer into the future more than a few days I can foresee myself returning here for season after season, year after year, indefinitely. What better sinecure could a man with small needs, infinite desires, and philosophic pretensions ask for?”
But, as Abbey saw it, not all was rosy at Arches. He writes, “For there is a cloud on my horizon. A small dark cloud no bigger than my hand. Its name is Progress.” Under the direction of the National Park Service, Arches soon transitioned from an off-the-beaten-path retreat to a major tourist destination.
Abbey experienced Arches as the NPS implemented its Mission 66 plan. He worried and warned that national parks were threatened by “industrial tourism” whose “chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks.”
Abbey’s “Polemic,” true to the title word’s meaning, is a scathing criticism of development in national parks and the NPS’s efforts to expand it. “Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year.” *
Abbey outlined several ways to alleviate crowding and further development such as an end to road building in parks, putting more rangers into the field, and banning cars from parks. “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk,” he writes. “The automotive combine has almost succeeded in strangling our cities; we need not let it also destroy our national parks.”
Clearly, the industry of tourism has grown substantially during the last several decades. Although the pros and cons of this reality is not something I wish to tackle in this essay, our national parks are at a tipping point beyond which I worry the experience of visiting them as well as its wildlife, plants, and scenery will suffer. While I support rethinking how we use cars in national parks and we certainly should not be building new roads, denigrating those who experience parks by car is not the answer. I now see Abbey’s objections to visiting parks by car as ableist.
Fresh out of college and equipped with good health, I privately sneered at those who drove through parks without riding a bicycle or spending time on the trail. Like Abbey, I wondered, are you really having valid national park experience if you don’t risk hypothermia or sunburn? Yet, most of the time I drove into parks, parked my car and then rode my bike or hiked. I was, hypocritically, dependent on the car and, more importantly, I didn’t consider that the experience of those visiting parks primarily by car as equally valid an experience as my own. Of equal or perhaps even more concern was my rejection of the needs of people who couldn’t visit. “Oh, you can’t come,” I thought, “That sucks but what am I supposed to do about it?” Nature deficit disorder is real, but let’s not pretend that experiencing a national park by car is a cause. There are other much more systemic issues at heart.
When we’ve traditionally explored how to address crowding in national parks, most of the ideas, especially those that have emerged out of the NPS bureaucracy, center around encouraging people to visit less crowded parks, to use shuttles where available like at Zion and Acadia, to visit during less crowded times and seasons, and to encourage people to do more planning or plan like like ranger. Comparatively little thought has been given toward efforts designed to connect parks with people who experience barriers that hinder them from visiting.
While at Brooks River, I don’t share the river with only the few hundred people on the ground with me. I share every moment with many thousands of people watching from around the world. In 2012, Katmai National Park partnered with explore.org to host streaming webcams at Brooks River. Several webcams (collectively and affectionately known as the bearcams) stream live footage of Brooks River each summer and fall, allowing anyone with an internet connection the opportunity to watch bears fishing for salmon.
Each year, the bearcams receive millions of views. During 2021, for example, the bearcams saw 16.5 million page views on explore.org. People also watched from 110 countries and all 50 states. The programs that rangers and I host on the bearcams reached hundreds of thousands of people collectively. These numbers are several orders of magnitude larger than even the record setting visitation experienced at Brooks River during the same year.
Although the bearcam experience lacks the immersiveness of an on-site visit, its depth far surpasses anything you’d typically get in person. A webcam experience isn’t limited by flight schedules, vacation days, outdoor skills, fitness, or wellness. It lasts as long as you want. It is accessible whenever you want. Through the bearcams, we watch bears not for a hurried few hours. We watch across weeks, seasons, and years. We see bears return to the river every year of their lives. We watch mother bears rear multiple litters of cubs, and those cubs, in turn, mature through sub-adulthood and adulthood. We discern the breadth of each bear’s individuality as it decides how to make a living. We witness the ebb and flow of the largest salmon runs left on the planet, how the fish underpin Katmai’s ecosystem, and how their year-to-year variability influences the behavior of bears and other wildlife. There’s no wildlife-watching experience quite like it.
If you haven’t experienced a national park through a webcam, then it might be difficult to envision that watching a park through a webcam can be meaningful. But, friends, it is true. A study comparing and contrasting on-site (i.e. in-person) and online (webcam) visitors to Brooks River found that webcam viewers emotionally connected with bears at higher levels than on-site visitors. The same study found that webcam viewers also support protections for bears at higher levels than people who visit in-person. In fact, support for bears and national parks among webcam viewers equalled or exceeded those reported by on-site visitors on almost all metrics evaluated in the study. Subsequent research has found that the bearcams provide mental health benefits and that people greatly value the individual animals that they see through webcams. To expand these lines of research, I’m collaborating with Dr. Lynne Lewis from Bates College, Dr. Leslie Richardson from the NPS and Dr. Jeffrey Skibins from East Carolina University to conduct and analyze more on-site and online surveys of Katmai’s visitors. Our analyses of online surveys from 2019 and 2020, for example, have confirmed previous results and have even underscored the importance of individual, easily recognized bears in people’s experience.
As the aforementioned crowding issues demonstrate, providing space for everyone who wants to visit parks in-person isn’t feasible or sustainable for Katmai or any other national park. It is feasible, however, to provide meaningful, memorable wildlife and nature-based experiences through the democratizing and stewardship-raising force of webcams. (And if you don’t believe me after all this, please go to the bearcams and ask for yourself in the comments.) It’s long past time for more national parks to utilize webcams to bridge barriers that hinder people from finding meaning and value in national parks and other wild spaces.
I’ll be the first to admit that the bearcam experience is different than visiting Katmai in-person, and my advocacy for the use of webcams does not mean I believe webcams can or should replace the in-person park experience. Nothing that a computer screen provides can truly replicate the wellspring of awe that I feel while standing at Brooks Falls and seeing a dozen bears compete for fishing spots. But, for almost everyone except very fortunate individuals like me, the in-person bear watching experience is ephemeral. Only a tiny fraction of Brooks Camp’s visitors return more than once, according to the two most recent in-depth visitor surveys (2006 and 2014). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many. For others, it’s not feasible at all.
We can’t build our way out of crowding and access issues like we did after the post-WWII tourism boom or try to shove people into parks during increasingly crowded “non-peak hours” or “shoulder” seasons, not if we want to ensure a high-quality experience, the integrity of park ecosystems, or address the systemic barriers that prevent many people from visiting parks. In contrast, webcams in national parks can provide a form of nature-based equity. They create life-long and devoted stewards among those who may never visit in-person. They help our nature-starved societies find connections with the non-human realm. They heal people.
National parks rank among the nation’s most revered landscapes, and their place within American culture is no accident. In the 150 years since Yellowstone National Park’s establishment, the national park idea has evolved. Yellowstone and other parks are much more than places “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” We value parks for the solace they give us, the fun we experience in them, the wonder and awe they inspire, the opportunity to consider our shared history, and, of course, for the plants, animals, and natural processes that parks harbor. I cherish my time in parks. Everyone deserves access to similar opportunities.
In the United States at least, many of us are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy in a COVID-positive world. Our governments and public discourse are a hot mess of arguments about how to best achieve this. In the context of national parks, other public lands, and wild areas, however, “normal” does not equate universal access. It never has. This upcoming spring and summer, national parks will once again be overwhelmed with people. Rangers will do their best to cope, but without more rangers and the regulatory and policy tools to address congestion, the NPS will go back to its default mode: put out active fires, ignore the tinder, and hope the flames don’t spread.
Katmai National Park existed within the standard visitation paradigm for decades. For those who visit to watch bears in-person, it is an amazing and profound experience. When I worked there as an interpretive ranger, when I’ve visited during my free time, and when I’ve returned as a fellow with explore.org, those moments when I watched bears expressing their survival instincts are experiences more meaningful and memorable than almost any thing else I’ve done in my life thus far.
I last worked as a ranger in Katmai in 2016 though. Without webcams Brooks River would be a fading memory by now, no matter how many photos I took or journal pages I wrote. With the bearcams I, along with anyone else with an internet connection, can return at any time to find inspiration in the beauty of our world as well as the tenacity and intelligence of wild animals. Watching bears, whether in-person on online, creates life-long memories and inspires stewardship. Are national parks truly spaces for everyone? Not yet, but if more parks use webcams as a tool to reach people there’s no reason they can’t be.