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.
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.
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.
Last summer, explore.org celebrated the 10th anniversary of the bear cams at Brooks River in Katmai National Park. These webcams offer an in-depth look at the behavior and ecology of a population of brown bears, allow us to observe the same individual bears over many years–giving us the chance to learn about their personalities and habits–and provide a platform for rangers and other experts to host live programs and commentary about the bears and their stories. It’s a wildlife watching experience like no other.
As part of the celebration, I chose to highlight some the moments that I thought were most memorable from the last ten years of bear cam. Some explore point-in-time events. Others celebrate the behavior of individual bears who have left their mark on Brooks River in ways we can’t forget or ignore. Each was unforgettable from my perspective. I hope you enjoy them.
Most Defensive Mother: 128 Grazer
Grazer is an archetypal mother bear. Don’t get in her way and don’t approach her cubs.
Lefty Learns to Fish at Brooks Falls
Old bears can definitely learn new tricks. In July 2015, we watched a fully mature adult male brown bear figure out how to fish where he’d never fished before.
Otis Eats 42 Salmon in a Sitting
Be awed by the capacity of his stomach.
Death of 451’s Spring Cub
When a bear cub falls ill the world will watch.
A lone yearling finds a new family.
Reign of 856
Few bears will ever experience the prolonged dominance and advantage earned by 856.
2020 Salmon Smorgasbord
What happens when bears have access to unlimited salmon? The 2020 salmon run gave us the answer.
History of Fat Bear Week
A goofy idea becomes a world famous internet sensation.
We are Family: 909, 910, and Cubs
Sister bears reunite while raising cubs to create an extended family.
If that’s not enough, the bear cam community complied links to all of our bear cam live events from 2022. Two stand out in my mind: 1. The impromptu Q&A about a fight between and mother bear and a dominant male, and 2. The bear cam 10th anniversary live chat.
We’ve seen a lot of special moments on the cams during the last ten summers–perhaps too many to recall–so these are only a small snippet of the larger story. What are your most memorable moments from the bear cams?
As is tradition—going way back to the before times (2017)—I’ve endorsed a bear for Fat Bear Week. This year’s bracket might be difficult to predict, but with voting commencing today at 12 p.m. Eastern and continuing through October 11, it’s time to throw my weight behind a Fat Bear Week contender.
I’d let him speak for himself but his mouth is usually too full of salmon.
Friends, humans, and ursids, let us stand in awe of a true competitor. A candidate with conviction. A candidate with strength. A candidate that stands up for what he believes. A candidate the size of a double-wide refrigerator. This Fat Bear Week vote for the mighty 747.
747 returns to Brooks River every summer as a giant and just keeps getting bigger.
Perhaps you don’t want to listen to me. After all, I’ve endorsed 747 before and it hasn’t usually led to his victory. Our culture is celebrity obsessed, though, so maybe you’ll listen the expert opinions of these randos.
Homer remarked that 747 is the only other individual whose blubber flies like his.
Pee Wee Herman agreed that 747 was the fattest bear, but he was incredulous when Amazing Larry said he might vote for another candidate.
Dr. Evil threatened world destruction if 747 fails to win.
I spoke with the President too, believe it or not. (He seems to clear his schedule when you have something to say about Fat Bear Week.) Joe Biden noted that 747 grew proportionally faster than this year’s inflation rate.
747’s summer was one of competition and success. In June and July, he yielded space to bear 856. By August, however, 747 turned the tables. He frequently challenged and displaced his long-time rival.
It’s hard work staying dominant and getting fat too. Bears as large as 747 tend to overheat easily, and while their limb bones are built to support their great mass sometimes climbing those hills is a struggle.
You also can’t get that fat without eating a lot of food, and 747 excels in this life goal. Although we don’t know exactly how many fish 747 ate this year, a study about brown bears on Kodiak Island may provide some insight.
Brown bears shed their fur once per year in early to mid summer. Since new fur grows during a bear’s active season, it contains a record of what the bear ate during that time. Studies of captive bears had previously determined the relationship between the mercury content in food and the mercury content in hair. To apply this to bears on Kodiak, researchers first determined how much mercury is found in the Pacific salmon that spawn on Kodiak. They then analyzed the mercury content found in the bears’ hair to gain an estimate of salmon consumption. Large adult males, on average, ate 6,146 pounds (2,788 kg) per bear per year! Some adult males ate a lot more, though, as much as 10,000 pounds of salmon. Since 747 fished at Brooks Falls almost every day between late June and mid September this summer, then his total salmon consumption may likely have been near the upper end of that spectrum.
For fisheries managers and biologists, these statistics are more than pieces of trivia. They are necessary to help inform decisions about salmon escapement goals, so that salmon runs are sustainable for people and the wildlife who depend on them. The aforementioned Kodiak study found that “the estimated population of 2,300 subadult and adult bears [on Kodiak] consumed 3.77 million kg of salmon annually, a mass equal to ~6 percent of the combined escapement and commercial [salmon] harvest (57.6 million kg).” Katmai National Park’s bear population is about as large as Kodiak’s, and when we work to sustain salmon runs we’re also celebrating the life they provide to many other species and individuals, such as bear 747.
Bears get fat to survive winter hibernation, and Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week bears are well positioned to weather the oncoming famine. But there’s candidate who eclipses the rest. Your bear might be a 10 but 747 is 1,400 pounds. I’m voting for 747, are you?
Download your bracket from FatBearWeek.org and go there to vote in each Fat Bear Week match from October 5 to 11.
THE THING ABOUT BEARS IS THAT A LOT OF THEM ARE BIG. BUT LIKE HAVE YOU SEEN 747?? HE’S SO BIG. A GIANT, REALLY. HE JUST SITS THERE AND FISHES LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. I MEAN HE HARDLY LEFT THE FALLS ALL SUMMER. DOESN’T MATTER HOW COLD THE WATER IS OR WHICH OTHER BEARS ARE THERE….
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.
Most of the bears who use Brooks River in Katmai National Park are known individuals that return to fish for salmon year after year. Many return for their entire lives, and their stories are an integral part of my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls. Last month, I invited readers to guess the identities of the bears on the print and audio covers. I placed entrants into separate drawings for the chance to win free copies of the print and audio book as well as a personalized signed copy of the print book. Here are the answers and the lucky winners.
On the print book cover, two of the three bears are fairly distinctive yet all three are legends.
Sitting below the falls is everyone’s favorite example of patience and efficiency, 480 Otis. His face is a bit obscured due to the camera angle. The photo was also taken before he acquired a bit of a wonky right ear, but you might recognize his classic Eeyore-like posture.
Standing on the lip of the falls at upper left is 6 Headbob, a bear identified as a young adult male in 1988. When I first saw him in 2007, Headbob was a large and skilled angler who had free access to his preferred spot on the lip. (I do wonder how he would’ve fared if he had to compete with Grazer this year.) Headbob was one of the first bears to teach me about longevity and survival for older individuals in this long-lived species.
The other bear on the lip is difficult to identify. In this photo he’s a young adult soon to mature into one the river’s most dominant bears. It is 856. Starting in 2011, he reigned as the river’s most dominant bear for most of a decade. No one predicted his rise to the top of the hierarchy. Even though 856 took a slight step back this summer and began to yield to the mighty 747, it may be many years before we encounter another bear with a similar combination of his size, assertiveness, and fighting skills.
Now to the audio book cover. At upper right is 489 Ted and at lower left we see 32 Chunk. Ted is recognizable by his triangle-shaped ears and distinctive scar on his left hip.
His scar, notably, is the remnant of a large wound he received in 2007. Fair warning: the video is gasp worthy. Ted showcased a bear’s ability to get on with life despite pain.
Chunk is a bit harder to identify. In this photo, he has no obvious distinctive features like Ted. Instead, I recognize him by his face and body shape. Even during his subadult and young adult years, Chunk always had a pear-shaped body.
Since Ted’s wound is relatively small in the cover photo and he was last seen in 2013 and since Chunk appears to be a sizable young adult, then this places the photo sometime during 2011 – 2013.
Only one person correctly identified all the bears on the print book cover. Congratulations to Mariah Denhart from California for correctly identifying all the bears on the print book cover. She receives a personalized signed copy from yours truly. No one correctly guessed the both cover bears on the audio book, so I placed all entrants from that category with at least one correct ID into a separate drawing. Congratulations to Jolene Nagle from West Virginia who wins a free copy of the audio book. Lastly, congratulations to Mike Hass from Oklahoma who wins a free print book from a drawing of all “Guess the Cover Bear” entrants. I’ll be touch with each winner via email with more details.
Thank you to everyone who participated. I’ve been overjoyed by the positive notes and reactions that have been sent my way about the book. Most importantly, though, I hope it enhances your understanding of Brooks River, its bears, and your bearcam watching experience on explore.org. May it inspire you to protect this special place for bears, salmon, people, and all the area’s inhabitants now in the future.
PS: Bearcam fan and sometimes National Park Service volunteer Stacey Schmeidel has been leading a book club about The Bears of Brooks Falls this summer. The next meeting is September 11 when the club discusses Chapter 11: Keystone. Please sign up for the Zoom meeting if you want to participate.
We’re in the thick of the bear-watching season at Brooks River in Katmai National Park, Alaska, and I returned only recently from a two week trip to the river to host live bearcam events. I didn’t get enough sleep during that time, yet the fatigue was a minor inconvenience so I could experience the bears in person, and more importantly, share that experience with people around the world. Please tune into the bearcams every day for perhaps the best, live wildlife-watching experience on the internet.
On July 22 at 9 p.m. Eastern (6 p.m. Pacific), I’m joined by bearcam fan, national park volunteer, and fearless book club leader Stacey Schmeidel for a Q&A with Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA. Register for this event.
On July 29 at 6 p.m. Eastern (3 p.m. Pacific) I’ll talk with Heidi Carter, owner of Bogan Books in Fort Kent, Maine—the most northeastern bookstore in the United States. Join this event on the Bogan Books Facebook Page.
Bearcam is back for 2021, and while it’s still very early in the season several bears—including Grazer, Holly, and their yearlings—have made an appearance. As Rangers Naomi Boak and Lian Law discussed with me during our Welcome to Bearcam live chat, there are many fascinating storylines to follow this year. At the risk of offering a shameless plug, my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls, explores many of those stories too.
A dedicated book club has sprung up to discuss the book. At the end of each meeting, participants answer one question: If you could ask the author anything, what would be? Below, I’m happy to answer those questions. If you are interested in joining the book club for their next discussion on June 19 via Zoom, please sign up.
Questions from the club’s discussion of Part One: Creation and Discovery (May 29, 2021)
Can you clarify WHY there used to be fewer bears at the falls? In the past, were they hazed away? Did they stay away from the falls because anglers were given priority there?
In Part One of my book, I discuss the events that led to the proclamation of Katmai National Monument in 1918 and the monument’s evolution into one of the largest national parks in the United States. Bears were not a major tourist attraction at Brooks River until long after Brooks Lodge was established. It wasn’t because anglers were given priority. It was because the bear population was much smaller than today. The national monument was expanded in 1931 to include areas such as Brooks River to protect habitat for wildlife like bears, but:
By all accounts, few bears used the river when Brooks Lodge first opened for business in 1950. Bears and any type of bear-management activities were absent from the reports of the first rangers stationed at Brooks Camp. Ranger Russell Todd, for example, never saw a bear on foot in the summer of 1954. The presence of people alone was apparently enough of a deterrent to displace bears from the river except at night. In 1957, biologists conducting salmon research at Brooks River for the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported bears “loudly evident” every night during September at the salmon- counting weir strung across the head of the river.
How many bears lived within the monument at that time remains an open question, but it was likely not many. The population may even have been at a nadir, the result of decades of heavy hunting pressure near the monument and, I suspect, the lingering effects of the 1912 eruption. After a two- summer biological investigation of the monument in 1953 and 1954, Victor Cahalane reported: “It is impossible to make even a rough estimate of the population of bears in Katmai National Monument.” Yet he tried. According to his and other anecdotal sightings, including one from a pilot who claimed to have seen 60 bears along Savonoski River in early September 1954, Cahalane ventured that about 200 bears lived in the monument.
Steady levels of salmon and a reduction in hunting pressure outside the monument were probably the main factors that allowed the area’s bear population to slowly increase, but at Brooks Camp people inadvertently helped accelerate the bears’ use of the river. By the end of the 1960s, a small and growing contingent of bears had become accustomed to the easy access to unsecured food at nearby garbage dumps, the lodge’s burn barrels, and unsecured supplies. By the mid- 1970s, Brooks Camp had become well known as a place to find at least a few bears, and several had begun to fish in the river during the day when people were active. (Pg. 172-173, The Bears of Brooks Falls)
I will add that over the last 40 years, salmon runs in the Naknek River watershed have been quite strong and that, perhaps more than anything else, has allowed the bear population to increase in the park. Additionally, during much of that time, park staff management have emphasized minimizing bear-human conflicts. The experience of cubs that accompanied their mothers to Brooks River may now consist largely of relatively benign contacts with people. This probably allowed the number and proportion of adult bears tolerant of people to increase.
It sounds, from Mike’s description [in Chapter 3 — Ramble], that the outlet of Brooks Lake into Brooks River is pretty shallow. Could global warming threaten the snowfall on the mountains, dropping the level of the lake and halting the flow of the river? If so, could that be a risk in the near future?
Although I can only provide a speculative answer, and while Lake Brooks will be affected by a warmer atmosphere, its water flow may not change appreciably. Lake Brooks occupies a deep basin that is almost completely below the water table of the surrounding land. There are no glaciers in its headwaters, unlike nearby Naknek Lake, so it’s already adapted in a sense to a hydrology that is highly influenced by annual precipitation. Snowmelt is only one influence. After most of the snow melts from the watershed in late spring, then summertime rain seems to have the biggest influence on water levels in the lake. Wetter summers can raise lake levels more than a foot compared to dry summers. Importantly, much of its water is sourced from spring-fed streams and springs under the lake surface. So, even during drought years, the lake basin experiences some recharge.
Climate change is certainly altering Katmai’s landscape, both the land and water. In 2019, we saw the impacts of a very hot, dry summer on Brooks River. Water levels were quite low and water temperatures were quite hot during an early July heat wave that year. However, water continued to flow through the river, albeit at a reduced level.. That’s just one year, though. By the end of the century—especially if we don’t get our act together and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible—the summer of 2019 will be one of the coolest of this century. Droughts and heat waves may become the norm in Katmai. For more information on the present and future of Katmai’s climate, please see chapter 17 of The Bears of Brooks Falls.
Can you clarify the distance from Brooks River to Margot Creek? Is it common — or uncommon — to see “our” cam bears at Margot Creek?
The shoreline of Naknek Lake between Brooks River and Margot Creek is about 13 miles, well within a day’s walk for a brown bear. If a bear takes a few shortcuts through the forest, then the walk is closer to 10-12 miles.
Several identifiable Brooks River bears use Margot Creek in August including 402, 435 Holly, 480 Otis, and 856. I would not be surprised if there are others well. But, salmon are dispersed widely in central Katmai in August when bears fish at Margot Creek. Unlike early summer and early fall when Brooks River is the only place to fish, bears have many other alternatives to Margot Creek in mid summer so not all Brooks River bears need to go there.
Can you talk about your research process? The book draws on your personal experience — but it clearly draws on extensive research, too.
When I began drafting the manuscript, I thought most of my research was finished since I had to study a lot to prepare programs and talk about bears when I was a park ranger at Katmai and through my current job at explore.org. That head start was helpful but not thorough enough. It was merely the foundation to build upon.
As I wrote, I wanted to be sure that my facts and conclusions were backed up by personal observations, experience, and the best available science. While working on the manuscript, I probably spent half my time reading research and half my time writing.
I began writing each chapter by outlining it. Then after I established what I wanted to write about and the stories that would add depth to the facts, I read or skimmed through the relevant books and scientific papers that I saved previously to establish the basic facts that I wanted to include and confirm what I thought I knew. This led me down many rabbit holes. I probably read dozens of papers for some chapters, especially Chapter 4 on hibernation. Tracking down specific facts and, hopefully, ensuring that I represented them accurately in the book was a tedious yet necessary task. Readers deserve no less.
Not a bear question, but a question for you as an author: What did it hurt to leave out of the book? What did you have to omit that you wish you’d been able to keep?
Quite a lot, actually. For example, I drafted chapters on glaciation and the evolution of Brooks River, but after consulting with an editor I decided to cut those. They weren’t a great fit for the narrative I tried to build. I also wanted to include the story of Holly adopting a yearling 503 in 2014 but couldn’t find the right place for it when I outlined the book. I considered using that story as the framework for Chapter 5: Family, but since adoption in bears is so uncommon I thought it best to focus on a bear whose maternal experiences were engaging yet more typical. That’s how I settled on 273 and her cub for Chapter 5. I’m happy with the final result of that chapter, yet I still wish I had found a way for Holly to be a part of it.
Questions from the club’s discussion of Chapter 6: Mating Season (June 6, 2021)
What if a female [bear] doesn’t want to mate? How much “say” does she have in the decision?
The female bear can’t control estrus or the signals that indicate to males that she is in estrus. However, female bears seem to have a lot of say in the timing of copulation. Although male bears are much larger than females, I’ve never seen a male bear force himself on a female bear. Instead, he doggedly follows her until she is ready to accept his advances. I also wonder if prolonged courtship can provide female bears with the chance to shed a suitor that they do not prefer. As I write in the book, a bear’s sense of smell is so powerful that a female can’t hide from a male. But, since mating opportunities are so limited for males, it’s not uncommon for more than one male to catch the scent of an estrous female. A prolonged estrus cycle coupled with a lengthy courtship could increase competition between males—an unconscious way for her to attract the most “fit” mate.
What is the ratio of males/females at Brooks River?
It hovers near 50:50, but last year there were more females than males. Because large adult male bears occupy the most productive fishing spots at Brooks Falls, it can sometimes seem like there are more males on the river than females. In July 2020 park bear monitoring staff identified slightly more female bears than males (29 adult females, 22 adult males, 14 subadult females, 11 subadult males).
Can you talk a bit about inbreeding? It seems like a lot of the bears we see mating are likely related to each other…
There’s only one confirmed case (through DNA analysis) of consanguineous couplings (inbreeding) between related bears at Brooks River.
24 BB was a very dominant male bear at Brooks River from the late 1990s through 2007. He was the equivalent of 856 during that time, and because of his dominance few bears would ever challenge him for fishing spots or for access to estrus females. BB sired a litter with the female 209. Bear 402, who still uses Brooks River, was one of the cubs from that litter born in 1998. 24 BB then sired a litter with 402. The offspring from the 402/24 relationship were weaned by 402 and identified as independent bears, but have not been seen in many years. I should note that this is common among subadult bears and their absence may not be reflective of interbreeding between a father bear and a daughter bear.
The limited DNA analysis of bears in 2005-2007 did not document any litters from a mother/son relationship. I think it’s unlikely that a bear could mate with its mother for a couple of reasons. 1. Male bears compete for the opportunity to mate with females and a larger, more dominant male would certainly outcompete a younger male bear for access. So while a young male bear is mature enough to mate around age 6, he’s still quite small compared to older males. 2. Young male bears often disperse away from their mother’s home range, and consequently their ranges as adults might not overlap. Mother bears remember who their offspring are too, and mom is often intolerant of the approach of her former cubs (we sometimes see a mother charge her former cubs, even years after family breakup, almost as if she is saying, “I told you to leave. Now stay away”).
Katmai’s brown bear population is quite large and robust. About 2,200 bears were estimated to live wholly or partly within Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2007. Although, we don’t know its true frequency, inbreeding between bears is probably uncommon here since the population is so large.
Why do mating males want to keep females in sight? It seems like all this following females around would distract males from eating and getting fat.
Courtship between bears isn’t always a prolonged process. In fact, sometimes bears couple soon after meeting. Potential male suitors, therefore, need to guard access to their prospective mates, lest they lose a rare mating opportunity.
The pursuit of mating opportunities certainly distracts male bears from other life tasks like fishing for salmon. I remember one July when 856 seemed like he didn’t stop courting females for the entire month. While the other males at the river got their fill of fish, 856 fished only occasionally because he was more interesting in reproduction. Near the end of July, he looked well muscled from the exercise of the pursuit but looked as though he had little body fat.
856 often spends a lot of time courting females in early summer and less time fishing compared to many other adult bears. He can afford to do so because his high level of dominance provides access to fishing spots wherever he goes.
“Survival of the fittest” is often thought to refer to athletic fitness or survival instincts, when it is more accurately framed in terms of reproductive fitness. Perhaps the male bears who have the energy reserves and stamina to court female bears for long periods of time with little food are the most reproductively fit. It’s also important to consider that the bears’ mating season ends in early summer, just when food becomes plentiful in Katmai, so a male who doesn’t eat much in June has ample opportunities to make up for it during the next few months.
Questions from the book club’s discussion of Chapter 14: Boundaries (June 12, 2021)
Is there any research showing how reduced attendance during the 2020 pandemic affected the salmon and/or the bears?
As far as I know, there’s nothing publicly available yet. However, biologists at Katmai National Park expanded the bear-monitoring program last year to collect data that might help answer that question. It was an unexpected research opportunity to observe bears at Brooks River at a time of year when typically it is loaded with people.
Certainly the lack of people at the river in 2020, especially when the camp remained closed to the public, allowed bears more space to fish. The greatest influence on the distribution of bears last year, though, was salmon. The record run of sockeye salmon was overwhelming and it provided bears with ample feeding opportunities throughout the river. In a year with fewer fish, I don’t think we wouldn’t have seen bears using the lower river in early summer as much as they did in 2020, no matter how few people visited.
The bears at Brooks are perhaps more human-habituated than other bears. And yet, as 854 Divot’s story proves, they do wander outside the boundaries of the park, where they will encounter humans who don’t operate according to park rules. Can you offer some reassurance — or some insight — about how their human habituation might affect their fate outside park boundaries?
Habituation at Brooks River provides a bear with advantages. It allows access to parts of the river that may otherwise be off limits if the bear isn’t tolerant of people. At Brooks River, people are especially tolerant of bears too through both attitude and regulations designed to protect bears.
Outside the park, they may not encounter the same tolerance. Having a bear prowling outside your cabin at Brooks Camp is one thing. Having it do so near your children and pets is another.
If a habituated bear wanders into King Salmon, for example, its tolerance for humans may lead it to temptation in the form of unsecured food and trash. A habituated bear could more easily become conditioned to seek human foods in that situation. Bears encounter much greater risks around people in those places than they do at Brook Camp.
Some biologists I’ve spoken to speculate that habituation could be context specific. That is, a bear might be able to learn that people in one location are tolerant while people in another location are dangerous. I think this is plausible but I’m not yet convinced it works that way for most bears. Further research is needed.
Many years ago, inspired by the complicated and fascinating intersection of bears, salmon, and people at a most unique place, I conceived the idea of a book that captured the story of Brooks River in Katmai National Park.
Part one of The Bears of Brooks Falls explores the establishment of Katmai National Monument, from the moments preceding the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century to the discovery of the surreal Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. These events inspired the creation of Katmai National Monument and, soon after, the efforts to expand the park for wildlife like brown bears.
Today, Katmai is most famous for its brown bears. Part two is devoted to their lives as well as the salmon that the bears depend on for their survival. I explore the marvel of the hibernating bear, discover Brooks River from a cub’s perspective, and follow the tribulations and growth of young bears recently separated from their mother. I also ponder how Katmai’s brown bears experience reproduction, competition, hunger, and death.
Few organisms are as important to an ecosystem as sockeye salmon are to Brooks River. These fish face tremendous obstacles and challenges. From freshwater to the ocean and back again, they travel thousands of miles, running a gauntlet of predators to fulfill their destiny. The journey ends when they sacrifice their lives to reproduce. Salmon are Katmai’s keystone, driving Brooks River’s productivity and significance.
In part three, I examine modern humanity’s influence over Brooks River. Humans may be the river’s biggest wildcard. Climate change looms large over the land and seascapes, and people alter the behavior of the bears that make the scene so special. The infrastructure needed to support thousands of visitors and their recreational activities invites conflict with bears. Managing bears and people in such a small area is especially challenging, provoking a decades-long and often emotional debate about the river’s future.
Brooks River’s bears live in a land that straddles the border between the wild and human realms. Their lives are intertwined with ours, and as a result Brooks River is a microcosm for many of the issues facing our national parks. No book has captured this story before.