Are national parks accessible to everyone?

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.

people standing shoulder to shoulder on a platform at the edge of a river. People are at lower left.
The view from the Riffles platform on a crowding morning in July 2021.

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 increasing popularity of Brooks Camp is no surprise. It’s a continuation of a pre-COVID pandemic trend that began around 2010. The surge in visitation is not unique to Katmai either. Many national parks are no longer just crowded; they are overwhelmed. About 5 million people visited Yellowstone in 2021 — 800,000 more than in 2019. More than 14 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2021.  Sixteen million visited Blue Ridge Parkway.

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.

black and white aerial photo of a large parking lot with boat docks and a marina carved into the adjacent water. Mangroves thickets are found near the development.
The construction of the Flamingo visitor center and marina in Everglades National Park was a Mission 66 project.

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 might have exaggerated the numbers here, although visitation did increase substantially between the time Abbey last worked at Arches in 1957 when, according to National Park Service statistics, annual visitation was 25,400 to 135,000 visitors in 1968 when Desert Solitaire was published. In 2021, visitation exceeded 1.7 million.*

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.”

If Abbey was angry then, he might feel a rage today. More than 297 million people visited national parks in 2021 during a pandemic. More than 327 million people visited national park areas in 2019. Record high visitation stresses the already expansive and often underfunded infrastructure of parks. Parking lots are consistently full; excess cars line the road or their drivers shove their vehicles onto narrow shoulders. Some areas, such as Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain that you need a permit to get in the park parking lot. Herds of us overwhelm trails and overlooks too. Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome requires a permit awarded through lottery as does Zion’s Angels Landing. You now need a “timed entry permit” to enter Rocky Mountain National Park and drive Glacier National Park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road. Remote hiking areas, where Abbey’s preferred visitors go, are often filled too. When I worked as a backcountry ranger at North Cascades in summer 2017, most every backcountry campsite filled during summer weekends. The overflow spilled into the surrounding national forests, public lands with significantly fewer rangers than 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. 

As an aside, I should note how far my thinking has evolved on this issue. Staring my career twenty years ago, I agreed with Abbey’s no-cars-in-parks stance. Cars are a menace, I thought. (And to be honest, that remains true in many ways. Automobiles kill tens of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals in the U.S. each year. Transportation also accounts for about 30% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Driving less would do our world a lot of good.)

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. 

Perhaps your employer doesn’t provide time off. Perhaps you cannot afford the time and money to visit parks. Perhaps you are among the two-thirds of Americans who experience chronic disease, some of which are serious enough to hinder travel and outdoor activities. Perhaps the COVID-pandemic exacerbates this, especially if you are among the immunocompromised that society seems willing to leave behind. Perhaps you have a decent salary and are relatively healthy from a physical standpoint, yet experience stress or depression that negatively impact your ability to travel. After all, we seem to be more stressed than ever. Perhaps you’re not White and the legacies of segregation in parks, discrimination in the conservation movement, and lynchings in rural areas create feelings of unwelcome and fear in outdoor spaces. Perhaps micro-aggressions from the largely White visitation and ranger staff make you feel like an outsider. Perhaps you’re Indigenous and parks are places of historical trauma where the U.S. government warred with and forcibly removed your ancestors to advance Euro-American settlement.

With these barriers in place, focusing primarily on congestion in parks is like rearranging chairs in a crowded room, while ignoring everyone that can’t even get in the building.

No panacea exists to solve accessibility issues in our parks. And, thankfully, a growing number of organizations are working toward solutions such as Brown People Camping, Disabled Hikers, Latino Outdoors, National Ability Center, Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers, and Wilderness Inquiry to name a few. There’s one way, however, that the NPS can break the prevailing paradigm almost immediately to provide people from all backgrounds with meaningful national park experiences, and with little more than an internet connection, which brings me back to Katmai. 

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.

  • Kcanada / 4 hours ago. My comment about the webcams: Explore, and specifically the Katmai webcams, have been the most profound experience of a National Park and wild animals in my life. We see intimate views of wild brown bears living their lives. It’s extraordinary. But, for me, there are two things that define the experience. - the fact that I have had the chance to know these bears as individual animals, and to appreciate that individuality. I have not felt the same connection with webcams where the opportunity is not the same. It changes from being generic or abstract bears, to bears that I can individually know, whether it is a twenty nine year old female or a very small young female bear on her first year on her own struggling to find her way. - the fact that the park and Explore are intensively committed to the webcams. The ongoing presence of the bearcam fellow and the rangers building the knowledge and promoting a webcam community of people who are passionate about the well-being of these bears and the wilderness more broadly. These two factors have enriched my experience and my knowledge in a way that can’t be overstated. It wouldn’t be the same without them.
  • AnitaFederalWay / 4 hours ago. I have been watching the bear cams for about 5 years. It has profoundly changed my view of brown bears. Before the cams I was afraid of them and while a huge national park advocate and visitor i was not in support of their reintroduction. Now my views have completely changed and i totally support their reintroduction. I spent countless hours enjoying the bears and ear interaction. It is great to be able to experience this with others who also enjoy them. I have found that I am much more observant of my environment.
  • Wuvtail / 4 hours ago. Until I found this cam from explore several years ago, I had never given our national parks much thought at all as being important. This cam has given me a window into a world I would never be able to see in person and a much greater appreciation of our national parks and the need for them to be preserved.
  • Stacey / 4 hours ago. The bear cams inspired me to want to become a national park ranger! I never thought about bears—or about national parks—until I started watching the cams in 2013. But thanks to the cams, I talk about bears to anyone who will listen! :-) And I was inspired to volunteer at Katmai last summer. Thanks to all for all you’ve helped us learn through the cams!

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.

Q & A: The Bears of Brooks Falls Book Club

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.

Google Earth image showing relative locations of Brooks Falls (upper left) and Margot Creek (lower right). Thickly vegetated land surrounds milky blue lake. North is the top of the map. The scale at lower right is 2 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.

A large brown bear stands in shallow water. He looks toward the left side of the photo. A partly eaten salmon rests at his front paws.

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.

A Big Night for Amphibians

In many ways winter is a glorious season. There’s nothing quite like the silence of the forest during a winter storm, when the landscape is remade under falling snow. During March, however, when snow has cloaked the land for months and summer seems a distant memory, I begin to dream of greener pastures, so to speak.

I’m not the only one who feels the pull of spring. For many animals, spring is not only a season of renewal but also one of frenzied business. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the end of winter in the northeast U.S. like the return of the amphibians.

close up view of spotted salamander crawling through grass. photo taken at eye level with salamander.
Spotted salamander.

Amphibians in the northeast U.S. lead relatively inconspicuous lives. During summer, I’m lucky to see a handful of spring peepers as I tromp through the forest or poke around my garden. Toads make their rounds, yet are camouflaged well enough to typically escape detection unless they hop. I might spot some bull and green frogs lurking on the edge of a pond, eyeing me warily, but I hear them calling far more often then I see them. Except for the boldly colored red efts or eastern newts, I typically don’t see salamanders unless I search the undersides of down logs, and I won’t see the more fossorial of salamanders, such as the spotted salamander, at all when they inhabit their burrows.

During winter, amphibians are even harder to come by. Tucked within the forest duff, wood frogs and spring peepers survive winter frozen like a popsicle (and I mean, actually frozen, not just cold). Adult newts remain hidden under the ice of their home pond. Spotted salamanders undergo their own form of hibernation in burrows they’ve appropriated from other animals.

Winter is often loath to end in Maine and the thaw usually progresses in spurts. In March or April, the warm days begin to outnumber the subfreezing. Meltwater and perhaps a cool drizzle percolates through crusty snow to the forest floor. Eventually, a storm front pushes through bringing overnight rain instead of snow. If the ground is mostly snow free and the rain coincides with temperatures above 40˚ F, I know it’s time to don my trusty yellow rain slicker and rubber boots for a walk in the dark. The mass amphibian migration nicknamed the Big Night has arrived.

close up view of spotted salamander. photo taken at eye level with salamander.
“Feeling cute. Might delete later,” says this spotted salamander.

Early spring this year brought unusually dry and warm weather in my region. The two plus feet of snowpack that lingered into mid March disappeared rapidly, but no rain came until April 10. That evening, right around 8 p.m., a light drizzle began to fall. Although I was unsure if it would be enough to initiate the amphibian migration, I only walked a few hundred yards along my road before I found out.

On the broken pavement, headed north to a small pond, sat a wood frog. Soon after, I found a spring peeper and then a gray tree frog. The amphibians were certainly on the move.

Wood frog.
overhead look at spring peeper on road
Spring peeper.
close up look of gray tree frog. photo is taken at eye level with frog.
Gray tree frog.

Activity along the next half mile of road was unsurprisingly sparse as it descended through forest without any close-by vernal pools or ponds. The next hillside, however, brought me through a true hotspot. I could hardly walk 50 feet without finding one or more spotted salamanders on the road.

close up view
A spotted salamander glares at me as it crosses the road.
close up view of blue-spotted salamander. Head is at center and facing right.
Blue-spotted and Jefferson’s salamander form a hybrid complex in Maine. This fine specimen I found is likely a hybrid.

While the frogs I had seen earlier live above ground during the active months, spotted salamanders live the majority of their lives underground or at least hidden under leaf litter, a lifestyle typical of the “mole salamanders” in the genus Ambystoma. They are conspicuous only during their brief breeding period in spring. Spotted salamanders return to reproduce in the same pond or vernal pool where they were spawned only to leave the water and return to their mole-like habits a few days later.

For me, a fellow who is increasingly interested in all critters small, the Big Night is one of the best evenings of the year. For the critters I seek, though, the Big Night can be one of the most dangerous experiences of their lives. Many do not survive their attempt to cross the road.

For wildlife, roads and motor vehicles are one of humanity’s most hazardous inventions. Although estimates vary widely, we probably kill hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals (and maybe even as many as one billion animals) on roads in the U.S. every year. This includes somewhere between 89 and 340 million birds. In 2015-2016, according to State Farm, 1.3 million collisions with large mammals cause enough vehicle damage for drivers to file insurance claims. Pennsylvania drivers led the charge with more than 133,000 wildlife-collision insurance claims. (I grew up and learned to drive in Pennsylvania and have unfortunately experienced more than one collision with deer. I’m not sure I have any family members in PA who haven’t struck deer in a car. Yay for the Keystone State.)

Since small animals like salamanders and frogs don’t cause vehicle damage, their road-caused mortality seems to be poorly quantified compared to large animals. A study from Massachusetts, though, found that motor vehicles are significant source of mortality for individual spotted salamanders and could lead to population extirpation if road mortality reached 20-30 percent of a population. Near prime breeding habitat, a Big Night migration can bring hundreds of amphibians onto roadways per hour. Afterward, when juvenile and adult amphibians disperse from their aquatic breeding habitat, road mortality can also be significant. However, dispersal from breeding ponds is more diffuse in time and space than the initial migration, and we know even less about road mortality during that phase of their lives.

Amphibians aren’t random users of the landscape. They seek out particular habitats. Spotted salamanders, for example, generally breed in the same water bodies where they were born. The collective migration to breeding ponds can funnel many individuals into a small area. This is where data gathering becomes an important conservation tool, especially if we are to lessen their risk of becoming road kill.

On April 10, I walked about three miles between 8 and 11 p.m. (the Big Night isn’t a fitness walk), but more than half of the salamanders I saw crossed the road within a single 100-yard stretch. On April 17, with just the barest spittle of rain falling, I walked the same road and saw no amphibians on it except within the same 100-yard section.

Google Earth image with yellow pins concentrated at center of image. Roadway
In this Google Earth image the yellow pins mark a concentrated area of spotted salamander sightings on April 10, 2021. A small pond at bottom-center is the salamanders’ destination. The mature forest north of the road offers salamanders good habitat the rest of the year.

I’m fortunate to live along a quiet, rural road where traffic is light even on the busiest days. During my Big Night walks, I may only see three or four cars at most. Still, I find road kill salamanders. So, removing live amphibians from the roadway (in the direction they are headed, of course) gets them out of harms way.

One great thing about the Big Night is that it provides a valid excuse to handle frogs and salamanders. Gently moving them from the traffic lanes can help ensure they don’t become pancakes under car tires.

Road hazards for wildlife is an issue that needs more attention from our policy makers and highway departments. To address it, we need, like so many things, systemic change. Road design must consider the safety of the most vulnerable—such as pedestrians, cyclists, and wildlife—before the convenience of motorists.

Individually, we can help by joining community science efforts such as the Big Night to document amphibian migrations and amphibian road mortality. We can also drive less, drive slower, and avoid driving at night when possible. Perhaps you might even be able to convince your town to temporally close roads during springtime amphibian migrations or build structures to guide amphibians under roads safely.

Amphibians bridge the aquatic and terrestrial worlds. They hail from an era in Earth’s history when vertebrates had yet to thoroughly colonize the continents. Their longevity as a taxonomic order (amphibians first appeared more than 350 million years ago) underscores that the strategy works. Yet, amphibians face increasingly dire challenges due to roads, disease, habitat loss, non-native species, the exotic wildlife trade, and climate change. Collectively, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals on the planet. Since we are the collective cause of these threats, then we owe it to amphibians to correct them.

The Big Night represents the transition between winter dormancy and the frenzied attempts of many amphibians to reproduce. Before documenting their migration across my road during the past two years, I had no idea that most spotted salamanders funneled to and crossed it along a single 100-yard long section. Searching for amphibians along roadways has helped me better understand their lives and their vulnerabilities in an increasingly human-dominated world.

Bear Necessities Intensifies: Lessons from a Semi-Viral Video

In September 2017, I took a brief trip to Brooks Camp, the world-famous bear-viewing site in Katmai National Park. This was a rare opportunity for me to visit for fun, as opposed to traveling there to work for the National Park Service or explore.org.

Bear watching is the most popular human activity at the river and the close proximity of Brooks River’s brown bears to the designated wildlife-viewing platforms makes for some exceptional photographic opportunities. However, I toted only a small point and shoot camera with a limited zoom. Taking good photographs, therefore, was challenging so I focused more on recording video of bears. Video can also provide a sense of scale that is sometimes difficult to capture in photos, especially when a titan is in the vicinity.

On the last morning of my trip, I found the colossal 747 walking out the river to challenge a competitor at Brooks Falls. This is what happened.

After I uploaded this video to YouTube, I hadn’t expected it to garner much attention, but a little more than three years later Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls is approaching one million views and has generated more than 3,500 comments.

When a video goes viral or becomes modestly popular, you can either let it develop a life of its own or attempt to heighten the experience. A captivating video is a chance to give people more than a few seconds of entertainment. It presents an opportunity.

People are naturally curious, especially so toward animals, but context and relatable, meaningful information are often needed to match that curiosity. How might those in the fields of heritage interpretation or science communication provide the casual viewer with a more meaningful experience? Here are a few of the strategies that I found successful with a short video about a fat bear.

Anticipate what a person with no context of the place or subject might need to know. The universe is a big place. Put yourself in the mindset of someone who does not have your experience or background. Although people relate to brown bears easily and on many levels (they definitely love a chonky bear), the natural history and ecology of these animals are not universally or even well known. I soon realized my modest video description was inadequate. Viewers were drawing conclusions and asking questions that I had not anticipated. They wanted to know more.

Get to know the demographics of your audience. If you read this blog regularly, you’re familiar with the bearcams in Katmai National Park. While the bearcams are extremely popular, receiving tens of millions of views each year, explore.org’s webcam analytics document that the bearcam audience skews heavily toward the female gender and adults over the age of 45. Analytics on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls, however, are much different. Viewers are typically 18 – 35 years old and overwhelming male.

Screen shot of video analytics. Text says "Age and gender | Views Since uploaded (lifetime) | 13-17 years 0.8% | 18-24 years 22.4 % | 25-35 years 37.4% | 35-44 years 15.9% | 45-54 years 10.2% | 55-64 years 7.9% | 65+ years 5.4%

That audience will likely react to and evaluate information differently than the typical bearcam commenter. And, they are relating to different things in the bear world. Knowing that, I might respond to questions and comments on the video in ways that I wouldn’t during a live chat on the bearcams.

Screen shot of two comments from a youtube video. Text says: 

Swamp Fox1 month ago
"This is a very large adult male (look closely when he stands up and rubs his back on the tree)." I did what you said. I guess that water's even colder than it looks.

Mike Fitz
4 weeks ago
@Swamp Fox The water in Brooks River is often a chilly 50 degrees F in early September. It likely has an effect. However, the bears' mating season peaks in late spring, so by late summer when I recorded this video testosterone levels in male bears aren't as high as they were before. Bears are also equipped with a baculum, which probably helps provide greater endurance when they need to get the job done.

If a video generates a lot of similar questions or leads people to make assumptions, write an FAQ to address those and then put it some place obvious. When the views on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls began to skyrocket, I took mental notes on the questions it generated to see if there was a pattern, while keeping in mind that the internet is a big place where people from all over the world can access the video. In addition to the questions people were asking, the number of comments prompted me to consider how I could provide further context. I identified three questions originally, wrote concise answers for them, and pinned the FAQ to the top of the video comments.

The FAQ didn’t stop people from asking questions (and I didn’t it want it to), but it caused the queries to change. Questions became less repetitive. They branched to other facets of bear biology. Plenty of people appear to be reading the FAQ as well. As of this writing, the FAQ on Giant Fat Bear has 2.8 thousand likes and zero dislikes.

The FAQ proved to be particularly valuable in ways that I did not expect. Much of the internet is little more than websites recycling (to state it mildly) the work of others. When the video first began to trend in 2018, the FAQ was often the only source of info used by websites looking to generate click-bait content based off my video. It was used in the prestigious Daily Mail, for example, to produce one of the tabloid’s most fact-laden articles ever.

When in doubt, assume that a person asks questions in good faith. It’s not always easy to discern the difference between questions asked in good or bad faith, and trolls should not be engaged. However, each person experiences life through the lens of a unique worldview and knowledge base. Furthermore, access to open space and outdoor recreation (both physically and inclusively) is far too limited for many people, especially among those that experience racism and discrimination. Yet biophilia and an instinctual curiosity reverberates through each of us, and by asking a question a person signals that they want to learn.

This is why I included “Are you making fun of the bear’s fatness?” in the FAQ. It’s not dumb to not know much about bears. Most of us don’t have easy access to bear habitat, let alone the opportunity to observe wild bears. People also post a lot of offensive stuff online. Given the unfortunate status quo of social media, I don’t fault anyone for thinking I might’ve been making fun of a fat bear instead of simply describing him. It is not obvious to everyone that bears must get fat in order to survive.

Think carefully about offers to license your content. Video distribution agencies prowl social media sites looking for engaging videos to add to their collections. Their offers to license and distribute your video look appealing at first glance, but I eventually rejected them all. Providing meaningful information and context was more valuable to me than the ten cents I might make through a third party distributor. I was particularly hesitant because some viral media companies distribute wildlife videos and spread them without context or even checking to see that video was recorded ethically. By rejecting these solicitations, I sacrificed reach but remained in control of the flow of information.

Lastly, choose a catchy title for your video but also one that isn’t confusing. Some comments on Giant Fat Bear at Brooks Falls suggest that a handful of people read the title literally and expected to see a giant fat bear fall.

Screen shot of comment on YouTube video. Text reads, "Mementø Møri 3 months ago (edited)
I was waiting all the video to see this bear falling.. But then I realized that I understood the title wrongly."

I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing how this simple video has inspired interest in bears, art, memes, and eventually helped to propel 747 to Fat Bear Week greatness.

As I draft this post, Giant Fat Bear continues to generate questions and comments. Many of the comments are simple jokes, but I still count those as a win. It means that a person was engaged. For those few seconds (and more if they asked a question) they were thinking about bears.

screen shot of youtube comment. text says, "SSSTYLISSSH SSS e months ago (edited) He protect He attack But most important He likes to snack"
Jumpstart 2 months ago he protecc he attacc but most importantly he scratch bacc
Screen shot of youtube comment. Text says, "Gladhe 1 month ago He protecc He attacc He most importantly Eat big mac!]

I have no allusion that leaving a comment on a video is the same as stewardship and advocacy for wild animals. But the first step towards stewardship is awareness and understanding. As Freeman Tilden, the founder of modern heritage interpretation, wrote in Interpreting Our Heritage, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” We get there one step at a time and we get there more easily with guides along the way.

Early September Bearcam Questions and Answers

This blog has been relatively dark over the last year, not because I hadn’t intended to write for it but because I frequently had other writing duties to fulfill. Afterward completing one task, it was often easier to space out at the end of the day than concentrate on writing something that approaches partial intelligence.

I want to share a little of what I have been writing though. Each Tuesday, I cohost a question and answer session in the comments on explore.org’s Brooks Live Chat channel. It’s an AMA about anything related to Katmai National Park’s bears and salmon. Many people submit your questions in advance, which allows me to answer them with greater detail than a question asked on the spot. Below are my answers to those questions during the Q&As for early September.

Be sure to join the Q&A every Tuesday from 5 -7 p.m. Eastern in the Brooks Live Chat channel, and if you prefer to chat in sentences limited to 200 characters, then join the bearcam conversation on explore.org’s Brooks Falls YouTube feed.

September 1, 2020

I’d like to talk about the “Beaver Pond,” which Kathryn asked about via the Ask Your Bearcam Question form. “I’ve often looked at photos of the [Beaver Pond] and wonder if any salmon can make it to the pond and if any of you have seen bears fishing or hunting around the pond?”

The “Beaver Pond” is located about fourth-tenths of a mile south of the outlet of Brooks River. A road provides an avenue to get near there although there is no developed trail to the pond’s edge. Bears use the area but mostly as part of their efforts to get to and from Brooks River because the pond is inaccessible to salmon.

The Beaver Pond in relation to Brooks River
A beaver at the Beaver Pond

Beavers maintain a lodge on the pond’s north side and a grass-covered dike (an old beaver dam) lines much of that area. But, the Beaver Pond isn’t a true beaver pond in the sense that its formation was the direct result of beavers. It was once part of Naknek Lake and has since been cut off by the sediments deposited by wind driven waves.

The beaver pond was once a cove on the edge of Naknek Lake. Strong easterly winds create waves that erode the gravel shoreline to the southeast of Brooks River. The waves carry gravel and sand northwest toward Brooks River. Over time, a horsetail shaped beach began to encircle the cove.  This image below is from an unpublished geologic report about the Brooks River area. Note the concentric ridges along the lakeshore near the beaver pond. These are the beach ridges that cut off the beaver pond from Naknek Lake.

This process is similar to what we see at the river mouth, especially in the “spit” area that partly encloses a lagoon-like area rangers call the boat cove. The boat cove may be destined to become a small pond or marsh like the wetlands between the river mouth and the beaver pond today, although the mouth of Brooks River is more exposed to direct blows from wind-driven waves than the beaver pond area. Strong storms can quickly rework and reshape the gravel at the river mouth.

In the above image, the parallel lines farther inland are old beaches as well, although they weren’t formed by longshore currents. Instead, they mark the former levels of Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Naknek Lake has been slowly lowering in elevation as Naknek River cuts through the glacial sediments that dam the lake.

Although we don’t know exactly what the Brooks River mouth area will look like in the future, we definitely know it will not look the same.

Jen wrote in wondering about the line-up of salmon we sometimes see below the river watch cam and asks, “Has that behavior been noted before?” And, “What criteria initiate egg-laying?”

This is the formation that Jen refers to.

Parallel lines of sockeye salmon in Brooks River. The fish are facing upstream and in this image the current flows from right to left.

Sockeye salmon line up in fairly parallel rows frequently in late summer in the lower Brooks River. Until this year, however, with more salmon using the channel below the river watch cam, we haven’t been able to see this on the cams very well. Although this is not a new phenomenon at the river, I haven’t been able to find an explanation for it. We know the salmon are staging (waiting for the right time to spawn) but I don’t know if lining up in rows gives them any sort of advantage. It may be the most efficient way to sort themselves or there could be some social cue among the fish that prompts the formation. It’s a beautiful feature of the lower river in late summer.

Regarding Jen’s second question, a female salmon lays her eggs in nests she constructs by fanning the gravel with her tail. This action winnows away fine sediments that might hinder water flow (and hence dissolved oxygen) around her eggs. She’s looking for gravel of the right size and in areas of the river with consistent water flow. Males will fan the gravel occasionally too but they play no role in nest construction. Once the female determines her nest is suitable and she’s accompanied by a suitable male, she’ll release her eggs directly into the nest while the male releases his milt. In this way, it is the female who determines when to lay eggs.

LoveTheBears writes, “I understand that there is an area designated for cleaning any caught and kept fish.  What happens with the discarded fish parts?”

There used to be a public fish-cleaning building at Brooks Camp. The first iteration wasn’t much more than screened-in shelter with a bucket on the floor where people disposed fish entrails. It was later replaced by a more substantial log cabin style building where people could clean their fish. Today though, there is no public fish cleaning facilities at Brooks Camp and the public is prohibited from cleaning fish within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls. People can keep one fish per person per day downstream of the bridge, but they must take it immediately to the Fish Freezing Building (the old fish cleaning building) and place it in a freezer. It must remain there until you depart Brooks Camp.

Although no bears at Brooks River are currently conditioned to seek human food, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1960s and 1970s, many bears learned to associate people with food and sought opportunities to get at human foods at Brooks Camp. The fish cleaning buildings were part of the issue along with open dumps, outdoor burn barrels for garbage, and overall lack of awareness and regulations about proper food storage in bear country. As part of the effort to reduce the risk of bears becoming food conditioned, the NPS got rid of the public fish cleaning facility.

Bears easily learn and remember any trick that allows them to find food. Therefore, we must remain constantly vigilant to ensure that bears don’t learn to associate us with fish. The NPS and the State of Alaska implemented somewhat strict fishing regulations in the 1990s, which has greatly reduced the number of incidents when bears have learned to associate people with fish. Eliminating public fish cleaning facilities and prohibiting fish cleaning within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls inconveniences some people but it is a big step toward protecting bears.

September 8

Angela writes, “We were talking about hibernation in the chat thread and wondered if it is necessary for bears to hibernate. We understand that bears at Katmai hibernate, but were wondering if bears in captivity also hibernate or if because there is a regular food source, the need to hibernate isn’t triggered?”

Hibernation exists along a spectrum rather than being an either/or behavior. Some mammals such as arctic ground squirrels are obligate hibernators, meaning they hibernate regardless of ambient temperatures or access to food. Bears experience a type of facultative hibernation. Given the right circumstances, bears needn’t hibernate to survive winter.

Each year, at least some black bears in mild climates (Sierra Nevada foothills, coastal plain of the southeast U.S., and Big Bend National Park to name a few) remain active all year. These are generally adult males. Similarly, a few adult male brown bears are active on Kodiak all year. Mild temperatures and at least some food allow these bears to remain out and about.

In North America, only pregnant female bears must enter a den and it isn’t because they must hibernate. Bear cubs are born so small and physically immature that they need many weeks of additional development before they are mobile enough to travel with mom. This is even true of polar bears who utilize the winter season to hunt seals on sea ice. Instead of heading out on to sea ice in early winter, pregnant female polar bears, just like all other pregnant North American bears, head to dens to give birth.

Although a handful of bears remain active all year, especially in more southerly populations compared to Katmai, hibernation is a bear’s best energy conservation strategy. It makes sense for nearly all bears to hibernate during winter when food is either very limited or non-existent. For those bears who stay active (other than polar bears), their metabolism and activity rates are much lower than summer. Winter activity, therefore, doesn’t mean that bears are as active as they would be in summer. So even captive bears may ignore food and water provided to them, relying more on their hibernative physiology to survive.

Erin asks, “747 is a huge bear. Is he the biggest bear seen at Brooks River? Have there been bigger bears in the past?”

As I’ve said and written many times, 747 is a giant of a bear. He is the most massive bear I’ve ever seen and we should not take his presence for granted. If 747 were to disappear from the river, it may be a long while before we see another as big as he. Last year, 747’s was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds.

747 from Fat Bear Week 2019

Each year, there are comparably sized bears in Katmai and at Brooks River. I’ll start by listing three of the currently seen bears who approach 747’s size class and then highlight two who might have approached it in the past. Only the largest adult males are comparable.

Right now 32 Chunk, 151 Walker, and 856 are close to 747’s size (at least within 300 pounds or so). They certainly rival him when measured by height and length. Each of these bears seem smaller to me than 747, but looks can be deceiving. Size is also an important determinate of dominance in the bear world. It is not absolute though. While 747 is more dominant than Chunk and Walker, 747 consistently yields to 856.

32 Chunk from Fat Bear Week 2019
151 Walker from Fat Bear Week 2019
856 from Fat Bear Week 2018

In the past, Brooks River has hosted some very big bears. While I never had the opportunity to see Diver in person, he was reportedly extremely fat and large in his heyday during the 1980s and 1990s. Look at this photo as an example.

In 2007, the most dominant bear I saw at the river was 24 BB. He was very tall and long–so a massively framed bear. He didn’t use Brooks River in late summer though so we never got to see BB at his peak size for the year. BB behaved much like 856. He asserted his dominance frequently and spent less time fishing than 747 does today, so he might not have been as heavy as 747 but the potential was there.

BB in July 2007

Marlene writes, “856 is getting older. I am wondering if he will know when he no longer can hold the top spot or do you think there will have to be a confrontation?”

856 has been the river’s most consistently dominant bear since 2011. Like all bears, 856 is great at weighing risk versus reward. For him, the overall risk of confronting other bears is low and provides great reward in the form of access to food, fishing spots, and mating opportunities, because other bears recognize his dominance. 856 will use that to his advantage as long as he can.

His high level of dominance is tied to his health and fitness. He’s a large bodied bear so will remain relatively dominant no matter what but he needs to maintain his good health and fitness in case another bear challenges him or is unwilling to yield. 856 might fall from the top of the hierarchy if he is defeated in a fight by another comparably sized bear.

His reign as the river’s most dominant bear could end in another way though. He might not feel up to the challenge.

In July 2017, 856 was an infrequent visitor in July and when he did show up, he yielded easily to 32 Chunk, perhaps because he suffered from a leg injury that hindered his ability to compete with other comparably sized males. At the time, already after many years of dominance, I thought this was the end of 856’s reign at the top. I was wrong. 856 returned to the return to the river in September 2017 looking as healthy as ever and acting as dominant as ever. He hasn’t taken a step back since.

The chances of a repeat of July 2017 could be in 856’s future just as much as his defeat in an intense fight at the paws of another bears. If 856 continues to return to the river as he ages into his early and mid 20s, I think we’ll see at least one of those scenarios play out.

A Plant with Teeth

My neck of the woods isn’t like the Chihuahuan Desert, where nearly everything that photosynthesizes seems like it evolved to grab, shred, tear, puncture, and stab you (just try an off trail hike at Carlsbad Caverns National Park if you want the experience and say hello to the lechuguilla while you do). Nor is my habitat like the poison-oak dominated slopes found in coastal California where a careless walk through brush can leave you itchy for weeks. No, not like that. Heck, I don’t even need to worry about ticks.

Along the Skagit River, devil’s club and a couple of species of invasive blackberry will stop you in your tracks with their numerous, stout thorns. Besides those few, the list of plants to avoid drops off fairly quickly, with a notable exception. One of the most ecologically interesting and menacing members of my plant community is a nondescript perennial that’s easy to ignore until it’s too late.

Lots of plants are fuzzy with fine hair. Some plants, like common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), utilize hairs on their leaves and stem like sunscreen and to make grazing just a little uncomfortable for herbivores. Some hair is just there, perhaps not serving a specific adaptive purpose, or not one that we know currently. But one plant in my forest, Urtica dioica or stinging nettle, has turned their hairs up to 11.

Nettle is rather inconspicuous. It has oppositely-arranged, coarsely-toothed, and heart shaped leaves. Its flowers grow in small, string-like clusters from the leaf axils and lack petals, typical for a wind pollinated plant, but what it lacks in showiness it makes up in its ability to inflict pain.

group of densely growing plants with toothed, heart-shaped leaves

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned about stinging nettle as a young teenager scrambling up a creek bank in Pennsylvania. The bank was steep and muddy. I needed just a little extra support to prevent me from sliding down. Lacking a tree to hold, I grabbed a group of herbaceous stems and immediately realized I had made a mistake. I made it up the bank, but the palms of my hands burned for the rest of the day. I was just introduced to nettle’s defense against mammalian herbivores.

Stinging nettle is equipped with tiny, but potent, stinging hairs. On the plants in my area, the hairs are particularly concentrated on the stems, flowers, petioles, and leaf undersides. Each hair is tipped with a small, fragile bulb that breaks off when contacted to expose a needle-like tip that, hardened by calcium carbonate and silica, readily injects a cocktail of chemicals into your skin. The stinging sensation is immediate and long lasting.

close-up view of underside of stinging nettle leaf showing stinging hairs, petiole, and leaf veinsclose-up view of young stinging nettle stem with many stinging hairs

Among other chemicals, the juice inside a hair contains histamine, which is an inflammatory compound (we take antihistamines to inhibit the affects of allergic reactions), and serotonin, which constricts blood vessels and acts as a neurotransmitter. In sum, it is designed to irritate.

Why the need for this defense? Nettle leaves are nutritious and high in vitamins A and C as well as protein. They would likely be a sought after commodity by deer and other browsing mammals if it weren’t for their stinging hairs.

We can neutralize the sting by drying or steaming the leaves. Steamed, the leaves taste as mild as spinach and they make a decent pesto.

 

The rash you get from poison ivy is an accident of evolution. The oily liquid, urushiol, which causes the itchy dermatitis on us doesn’t affect other North American mammals or birds. Your dog won’t get it. Deer eat the leaves. Many bird species relish poison ivy fruits for food. The stinging hairs on nettles tell a different story. They are purposefully indiscriminate against all mammals.

Plants, like all life forms, experience a wide variety of limiting factors. Stinging nettle may have evolved one way to dissuade herbivorous mammals, but the same defense doesn’t deter insects or snails. The stinging hairs don’t work on parasitic fungus or microorganisms either, nor on anything that attacks and eats its perennial rhizome. But, its stinging hairs work, quite well in fact for their evolved purpose—discouraging mammals from eating it.

Despite the pain nettle can inflict, I look forward to seeing it sprout each spring. It gives me an opportunity to reflect upon why it needs to evoke such discomfort in mammals. Stinging nettle is a plant with teeth. It fights back.

Fishers Return to North Cascades

On an uncommonly sunny day in early February, I stood in a tract of old-growth forest not far from the Suiattle River to watch a missing mammal return to the North Cascades. With the return of the fisher, this area is one step closer to whole.

The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the largest North American weasels. Adult females weigh four to six pounds and measure about 30 to 36 inches long, including tail, when fully grown. Males are about 20% larger, growing upwards of 13 pounds and nearly four feet long. Despite the name, fish are not a primary prey. Instead, fishers are wolverines of the forest. Highly arboreal, cylindrical in shape, and agile in motion, they are formidable predators of rodents, rabbits, hares, grouse, and other small to medium-sized animals.

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

One of the first fishers to be released on February 6. The common name, fisher, is probably a modern English language corruption of “fitch,” a Middle English term for the pelt of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), also known as the common ferret. Not coincidentally, the colonial Dutch fisse and visse as well as the French fiche and fichet, all words for the polecat, sound quite similar to fisher. (NPS Photo)

Fishers were functionally extirpated from Washington by the mid 20th century due to habitat fragmentation and, especially, unregulated trapping. Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find evidence of any viable fisher populations. As a first step to recover the species in the state, a coalition of public agencies, tribes, and private organizations released fishers in Olympic National Park from 2008-2010. This was followed by similar efforts in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park from 2015-2017. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest began to host the fisher’s return last fall, which is how I found myself standing in the woods with about twenty other people on February 6.

Fishers prefer mature forests with a high canopy, relatively large diameter trees, and an abundance of downed trees. Dead standing trees are particularly important to fishers, as they den exclusively in tree cavities. The release site for the fishers this day seemed particularly well suited to their needs.

forest and stream

Fortunately and conveniently, healthy populations of fishers remain in British Columbia and Alberta and they serve as the source for the restoration effort. Fishers from western Canada are also genetically similar to those that used to inhabit Washington. Canadian trappers were paid to capture live, healthy animals. The Calgary Zoo temporarily housed the fishers while veterinarians evaluated their health and surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters to assist biologists in tracking them.

Twelve hours before release, these particular animals were still in Calgary. At 1 a.m., the fishers were flown to Abbotsford, British Columbia where they were picked up by biologists and driven into Washington. By early afternoon, a gang of biologists and a few interested souls like me were unloading the cargo and carrying the fishers a short distance to the release site.

Fisher release, Buck Creek Campground, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest_02062019_4

Fishers were transported in specially designed crates. Two fishers, separated by a partition, are in each crate.

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

Our group formed a semi-circle around the crates to watch the release. Conversations quieted to a whisper or died in anticipation as the crates were opened one at a time. To coax them out, a screened vent was opened at the top and a volunteer blew a puff of air into the container. I’m unsure if this was as annoying as someone blowing air into my ear, but the trick worked. The fishers shot out like a flash and bolted into the forest.

Six fishers were released that day bringing the total number currently released in the area to 24. The release efforts will continue until about 80 fishers are reintroduced to the area. Biologists will track, monitor, and study the animals to assess survival rates, identify where they go after release and where they establish home ranges, the types of foods they eat, and the diseases and parasites they suffer from.

The effort has a high chance of success. Reintroductions, however, are rarely so simple. Fishers, although not well known among the general public, are relatively non-controversial animals. They don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in people as grizzly bears or wolves, for example.

More than that, however, the forested habitats along the core and margins of the North Cascades are largely intact. Land managers needn’t take extreme, expensive, time-consuming measures to restore the ecosystem to a point where it could support fishers again. It could always support them. We just didn’t allow fishers to survive here.

Because prior generations had the foresight to protect places like North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness, we have the opportunity to restore fishers to land they once knew as home. Situations like these are becoming increasingly uncommon. People have fundamentally altered so much of the Earth to preclude the reintroduction of many extirpated species into their historic ranges. (There’s no substantial habitat available for bison in Iowa, for example.)

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Potential future fisher habitat along Stetattle Creek in North Cascades National Park.

As humanity’s footprint grows, undeveloped landscapes are increasingly valuable, not for the resources we can exploit within them (including supposedly non-consumptive uses like solitude), but as repositories of biodiversity and ecosystem health. To adapt an idea from Thoreau, future generations, I believe, will measure our legacy not by what we invented and consumed, not by our material wealth, but by what we can afford to let alone.

I’ll probably never see any of these fishers ever again. Even if the population increases to hundreds of individuals, they’ll remain reclusive neighbors. If I’m lucky, I may find a track in fresh snow or its scat on a log. But even that doesn’t matter. I’ll know they are there and I’ll know the landscape is healthier because of it. The return of the fisher represents, at least in one small way, the success of our ability to let one place—North Cascades—alone.

Happy Birthday Bear

Across much of North America, tucked within isolated dens, a new generation of bears is beginning their lives.

Mother bears spent much of the last year preparing for this event. Although the timing varies among species and individuals, North America’s bears mate in late spring and early summer. The fertilized eggs, however, do not immediately implant in the uterus, undergoing only a few cell divisions before they enter a state of arrested development. During this process of delayed implantation, the female goes about her business while embryos remain in suspended animation. Implantation and fetal growth renew only close to the time she enters her winter den. Afterward, bear fetuses gestate for 6 – 8 weeks.

The gestation time is remarkably short for such a large mammal, and it produces especially tiny and helpless cubs. Brown bear cubs, for example, weigh a scant pound and measure only 8 – 9 inches long at birth, about the size of a beagle puppy. They are also born blind, lightly furred, and nearly immobile. Their ears are closed and their muzzles are short with a round, toothless mouth. Newborn cubs are so underdeveloped and small that they cannot maintain their own body heat in the den and must remain in contact with their mother to stay warm. About the only thing they can do is scream, which, not unlike human newborns, they employ frequently to gain their mother’s attention. It’s hard to imagine large adult bears so helpless, but they all start life this way.

Three small cubs held in a person's hands.

Newborn black bear cubs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

The small size of newborn cubs is surprising for animals that weigh several hundred pounds when fully grown. Generally, larger mammal species have longer gestation periods and give birth to larger offspring than smaller mammal species. African elephant calves gestate for nearly two years and are born bigger than elk calves; elk calves gestate for about eight months and are born bigger than deer fawns; deer fawns gestate for seven months and are born bigger than fox kits; etc. But, bears break the rule by a considerable margin. Bears give birth to the smallest offspring in comparison to adult female body size of any mammal.

Cubs are only 1/200th the size of even the smallest reproducing female grizzlies and commonly 1/500th or less for large adult brown and polar bears. In contrast, newborn human babies are an order of magnitude larger than bear cubs. A 10 pound child born from a 150 pound woman is 1/15th the size of its mother (yeah, I know that’s a big baby but the math was easy). Additionally, offspring born to large mammals are generally precocial, i.e. they are at least somewhat and sometimes highly mobile soon after birth. Bear cubs, however, are more akin to helpless hatchling birds or pinky mice. There is no parallel among placental mammals—only marsupials give birth to offspring as undersized as bears.

But why are bear cubs born purposefully premature? Why not just have a longer gestation time and birth larger, more independent cubs? The short gestation period and the relatively small size of bear cubs at birth both appear to be an adaptation to maximize the use of fat.

Bears are the only mammals that give birth while hibernating, a time when they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. Survival during this time is dependent on stored body fat, but the paradigm poses a problem for expectant female bears. A developing mammal fetus cannot metabolize free-fatty acids, perhaps because these substances do not cross the placenta as readily as sugars and protein. So, as long as a bear tries to sustain fetal growth through her placenta, she needs to draw energy from her own body protein. Fetuses also produce bodily waste, which is transferred to the mother and adds to her physiological challenges. To cope, bears evolved an alternative strategy, one that allows her to give birth while hibernating, support the continued growth of cubs, and keep the family safe.

Unlike in the womb, baby mammals can metabolize fat shortly after birth and milk is the vector to deliver it. Bear milk is a particularly rich and nourishing substance. Brown bear milk, for example, is about 22% fat by volume. Polar bear milk is even richer, a whipping cream composed of over 30% fat. By shortening the gestation period, mother bears trade placental nourishment (mostly protein and sugar) for mammary nourishment (mostly fat) and tap into the one resource they have in abundance.

fat brown bear exiting water

Female bears utilize their fat reserves to support the growth and nourishment of their cubs.

On a diet of fatty milk, a brown bear cub can gain about a 1/5 of a pound of body mass per day, weighing about 5 pounds when one month old and 15 – 25 pounds by 90 days. Not coincidentally, this is about big as they would be if gestation was of an “expected” length like other placental mammals. The den, therefore, becomes a surrogate womb, protecting the family during the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Two polar bear cubs standing at the entrance to a snow den.

Polar bears play at the entrance to their mother’s den. These cubs are probably several weeks old. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

Bears face many obstacles to survive and reproduce, not the least of which is winter famine. Hibernation provides bears with the ability to outwit winter by surviving on accumulated fat, but during this time a female bear must support the growth of her cubs with nothing more than the energy stored in her body. Given the challenges posed by gestation, hibernation, and winter famine, the birth of a bear represents a remarkable and unparalleled feat of mammalian adaptation.

So, happy birthday brown bear.

A Mountain Lion Prowls the Neighborhood

There’s a place along the Skagit River where I like to wander. Upstream and downstream, the river is lined with rural home sites, but in between there’s a small pocket of undeveloped land where relatively few people go. Compared to the wild lands surrounding nearby Mount Baker and the North Cascades, it’s a small area and nothing close to what most people would consider wilderness. A regenerating clear cut sits on a terrace above the water. Below it, the river flows through a shallow S-curve and a swampy area occupies the annual floodplain. Filled with a willow thicket, it’s a good place to hide, for me as well as many other animals.

I’ve made it a habit to explore the animal trails leading in, out, and through the floodplain. In the spring, when the water table is higher, Pacific tree frogs spawn in ephemeral pools. In fall, a black bear visits the riverbank to scavenge spawned-out salmon. All year, elk use it to move between pasture. I frequently see sign left by coyotes, and if I look hard enough I might be able to find the tracks and scat of bobcats. While I rarely see the live animals, exploring their haunts helps keep me connected to the other creatures that I share this place with. I have a spot within this area where I like to sit and listen, but sometimes the most interesting observations happen upon my approach and exit into this little pocket of wilder land.

Following an elk-maintained path down to the riverbank, I exited the forest onto a muddy side-channel, now mostly dry after a long, arid summer. The exposed mud and sand of late summer offer some of the best tracking opportunities of the year. I slowed my pace, eager to see which animals had moved through the area recently. In the semi-firm mud, I stumbled upon a set of feline tracks. The tracks were large, as wide as the palm of my hand with four clear toe prints. There were no claw marks and the sizable metacarpal pads were distinctively three-lobed at the base. These belonged to a mountain lion.mountain lion tracks in mud. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion track in mud. track point towards right. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion tracks in sand. tracks point towards notebook at bottom of photo. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.Curious to know more about its travels here, I followed the tracks along the edge of the river. The cougar followed the same general path I would have to move upstream; it stuck to the mud and driftwood on the edge of the willows. From the additional tracks I was able to find, the cougar continued along the riverbank for another hundred yards before I lost the trail in the adjacent thicket.

Based on my completely unscientific survey of mammal sign in the surrounding few acres, elk seemed to be the most abundant large animal here. They left many sets of tracks that moved perpendicularly from the river and into the deep cover provided by the willows. Was the lion stalking potential prey, or was it simply wandering through? Could a kill site be nearby? My imagination ran with the possibilities, but the dense vegetation would effectively hide any further evidence of the lion’s travels—unless I was lucky enough to stumble upon more sign.

Discounting that possibility as too unlikely, I left the river by following a narrow elk trail lined with salmonberry. The trail led, in a convoluted manner, to my sit spot where I sat for while to jot a few written notes and listen to the forest.

forest scene with taller trees in background and many small shrubs in foreground

To head home, I took a different yet familiar route along more elk trails. By this time, I wasn’t expecting to find any more sign of cougars (the duff was too well compacted and dry to hold their paw prints), but when I reached a fork in the trail I found evidence that at least one cougar had visited the area several times. Under low hanging branches of western red-cedar were four large scrapes. Each scrape was oblong and about a foot in length. Each had a small pile of debris at the base and three were accompanied by scat.

photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.

Mountain lions are reported to urinate when they make scrapes, but I couldn’t detect any strong urine odor despite kneeling down for a better waft. Evidently, the cougar had been here several times, but not that day and perhaps not even the past week. It looked to be eating well when it was here though. One pile of scat was sizable and reflective of a diet heavy with meat.

I found no other mountain lion sign that day, but the scrapes and tracks caused my mind to again race with the possibilities of its life here. Did it make a kill nearby? Or, was it merely using the heavy cover as a secure place to rest between meals? I left with more questions than answers. This mountain lion’s story might be missing some pages, but sometimes the finer details of a good tale are best left to the imagination.

The Worst Place in the World for a Mine

“This is the jewel in the crown of America’s fisheries resources – these salmon. If you don’t think this is worth saving, what is? To me, if you don’t draw a line in the sand here, there’s none to be drawn anywhere.”

Thomas Quinn
Professor, University of Washington and author of The Behavior and Ecology of Pacific Salmon and Trout

After more than a decade of controversy, Pebble Mine is inching closer to reality, and from the perspective of salmon, we couldn’t choose a worse place for an open pit mine.

red salmon swimming in shallow water

If you’re unfamiliar with Bristol Bay, its salmon, or Pebble Mine, please watch this 2012 overview on the Pebble Mine controversy, keeping in mind the mine’s currently proposed size and mineral processing plans are different than those outlined in the video.

Pebble Mine is a proposed open-pit copper, gold, and molybdenum mine at the headwaters of some of the last intact and most productive salmon habitat on Earth. Before any development of the mine can begin however, it must be permitted, and before it can be permitted, it must undergo an extensive environmental review. This is where we stand currently: the environmental impact statement (EIS) process for Pebble Mine has begun.

An EIS goes through several stages before a “record of decision” is finalized. Right now, the Pebble EIS is only at the scoping level. If you’re unfamiliar with the EIS process, public scoping is basically a brainstorming step. It’s the public’s opportunity to help define the breadth of the EIS to the lead agency, which in this case is the Army Corps of Engineers. (Read more about the scoping process.) During public scoping, if people don’t express concerns for the ecosystem-wide impacts of Pebble Mine and its infrastructure then the Corps’ EIS will not address them. Therefore, we must comment during the scoping period and demand that the alternatives in the EIS address the mine’s full environmental impact—which will sprawl across southwest Alaska and threaten the last great sockeye salmon run in North America.

The Bristol Bay area is exceptionally special and unique. Its landscape remains largely undeveloped and un-engineered. The major factors that decimated salmon elsewhere—habitat loss, dams, and pollution—are absent and salmon runs reach tens of millions of fish annually. Bristol Bay is where we can imagine the richness of fish that used to flood into the Columbia River or New England. It remains home to one of the most valuable and sustainable fisheries on Earth, one of the few remaining places where the full potential of the ecosystem is realized.

salmon jumping at waterfall

Salmon fishing boats in Naknek

Salmon fishing boats sit idle on a late winter day in Naknek, Alaska. The 2017 Bristol Bay salmon harvest was worth $670 million.

The Pebble EIS must address the mine’s potential, worst-case scenario effects on Bristol Bay’s salmon. A failure to contain the mine’s toxic tailings and wastewater would directly impact two of Earth’s most productive salmon producing watersheds. (The Kvichak River watershed, where part of the mine will be located, is home to the single largest salmon run in the world.) It must address potential groundwater exchange in the abandoned open pit, and whether the mining company can eliminate the risk of acid mine drainage. It must address whether the embankments for tailings ponds can withstand high magnitude earthquakes. It must address whether it’s even appropriate to build a mine whose wastewater will need to be treated indefinitely. It also must critically evaluate the mine’s supporting infrastructure, as it will potentially disrupt the world’s largest seasonal congregation of brown bears.

Map outlining Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. Red star marks location of Pebble Mine.

Pebble Mine will straddle the divide between the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, two of Bristol Bay’s riches salmon producing areas.

By law, the EIS process must identify the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Common sense implies the least damaging alternative in this case is no mine at all, but the National Environmental Policy Act does not require agencies implement it. If we don’t demand the Corps critically evaluate the myriad impacts from the mine, then the Corps will merely focus on holes in the ground, “alternatives” of natural gas versus diesel to power the mine, how wide the service roads will be, and the size of the ports. The scope of the EIS will be so narrow to be useless for the protection of salmon. (For an idea of what this might be, look no further than the Donlin Mine Final EIS, whose purpose and need is: “produce gold from ore reserves from the Donlin deposit using mining processes, infrastructure, logistics, and energy supplies that are economical and feasible for application in remote western Alaska. The applicant’s stated need for the project is to provide economic benefits to Donlin Gold, Calista, and TKC shareholders; and to produce gold to meet worldwide demand.”)

I recognize a sad irony—or hypocrisy, if you prefer—of using a computer, which contains gold and copper, to type this post. I understand there’s a hole in the Earth, perhaps filled now with toxic water, where the metals in my machine were once trapped in rock. If you, like me, think Pebble Mine is irresponsible, then voice your opposition not only through the EIS process and with your votes at the ballot box (politicians who support Pebble Mine will not receive my vote), but also by reducing your consumption of products that use gold and copper. We, as consumers, need to say enough is enough. Our addiction to ever-higher levels of consumption brought us here. It’s not really sufficient to say “I’m opposed to Pebble Mine” then go out and buy the newest iPhone even though your old phone works just fine.

Everything we use, everything we make, has a cost. We’re at a point in history when surging human population growth and mass consumption are pushing ecosystems and species to their breaking point, creating an ecologically impoverished planet. In New England, wild Atlantic salmon are nearly extinct, and on the U.S. west coast only a tiny fraction of Pacific salmon return compared to historic levels. Don’t kid yourself: This sad story can repeat itself in Alaska.

We lose salmon one impassible culvert, one dam, one levee, one mine at a time, leaving us to suddenly wonder, where did all the fish go? In Bristol Bay we have a chance, maybe our last chance, to save large runs of wild salmon. If the mine is built and its proposed safeguards fail, we risk losing a significant portion one of the world’s last great sustainable fisheries. Future generations won’t be celebrating our decision if we develop this mine. They’ll criticize us for not learning from the mistakes of the past. Are we really willing to let hyper-consumerism and the promise of short-term profits potentially destroy the last great salmon run?

It looks like we’re on track to do so, unless enough people step up and say no.

Through June 29, 2018, you can submit scoping comments on the Pebble Mine EIS. I’ll share my scoping comments in a forthcoming post when they are finished.

Update May 23, 2018: My scoping comments can be found here.