Brown Bear Watching on Alaska's McNeil River
Alaska's McNeil River is one of the few places on earth where you can sit within whispering distance of wild brown bears and watch them nurse cubs, nap, and do everything else that comes naturally.
In 1985 the land between Katmai National Park and the McNeil Sanctuary--later named the Kamishak Special Use Area--was closed to brown bear hunting to protect McNeil's bears, most or all of which wander an area much larger than the McNeil drainage. In 1991 the 188-square-mile McNeil River State Game Refuge was added to the north, and in 1995 that area was closed to hunting under similar logic, putting about 500 square miles of bear habitat under protection from hunting.
Still, as early as 1970 enough people were visiting that on some days they "drove the bears from the falls," says retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jim Faro. That year a photographer approached a sow with cubs, wound up shooting the sow in "self-defense," then published the story in Outdoor Life magazine. By 1972 Faro saw the bears abandoning the falls. The availability of food and garbage were also threatening to teach them to associate humans with food. Faro had seen enough. In 1973 the Fish and Game department established a permit system to protect the bears, under which no more than 10 visitors at a time would be allowed at the site. In 1974 a Fish and Game staff presence was established to monitor and manage the permittees.
Aumiller became sanctuary manager in 1976, after working for Fish and Game for four years in nearby King Salmon. A young thirty-something back then, with the curly black hair and beard of a woodsman, he brought with him a penchant for solitude and wild places, an artist's eye for thoughtful observation, and a gentle demeanor among his charges, both human and bear. For three decades he has run the place according to two primary goals. First, protect the concentration of brown bears; and second, manage opportunities for human scientific, aesthetic, and educational activities (so long as they're compatible with goal No. 1).
Aumiller decided that humans had to behave in ways that minimized bear disturbance. The rules now in place were created largely from his litmus: "If the bears appeared nervous and moved away, that was not the right way to do it." But in regard to the second goal, human safety came first. "It turns out the safest way to manage here is also the way that makes the bears feel most comfortable," says Aumiller, "which is the way that encourages them to be there in numbers and also creates the scenario whereby you get the best viewing."
Allowing visitors to be close to bears was never a goal. It evolved out of continuous benign human behavior--nonaggressive, unsurprising, and consistent--which led the resident bears to regard visitors as no threat, combined with the absolute absence of any chance for bears to associate people with available food (which is usually what produces a "problem" bear in a campground, on the trail, or back in town, and often leads to its death). Such regulated human behavior resulted in something of a mutual trust between people and bears that allows for close proximity without high danger or altered bear behavior. "This is an interesting outcome that I never would have forecast years ago," admits Aumiller. "And people today, most people, can't fathom it until they see it."
He is quick to point out that this is no exhibition of human-bear friendship. "It doesn't mean that they are tame, or that they like you, or that there's any spiritual connection. It just means that you are no threat--it's safe for them to ignore you." And that's precisely the experience I had during my visits to McNeil in July 2000 and August 2005. The bears preferred to pay attention to other bears, which could be legitimate threats, or maybe--in the case of an encounter with a less-dominant bear--a chance for a better fishing spot. We felt ignored. Usually.
One exception was that afternoon in 2000 when we ventured over to check on the bear activity at Mikfik Creek, settled in at a spot near some bears fishing for Dolly Vardens, and were approached by a young male, maybe 400 pounds, well muscled and with an obvious curiosity and an uncertain attitude. He paused behind a pair of working nostrils close enough to fog the nearest camera lens. Aumiller talked us out of making any sudden movements (which might have frightened the bear) in a quiet voice that also, I thought, conveyed to the bear our humanness. The bear, pretty new to these drainages, according to Aumiller, abruptly swung around and went back to his fishing. Not threatened, not fed: two good lessons for him.
McNeil has had a perfect safety record for both humans and bruins since the permit system began. But that is not entirely due to this mutual trust. Some of the success lies in knowing how to react to different bears, and Aumiller and the staff recognize the individuals here, and their attitudes. Some are more tolerant than others. "Bears are predictable," says Aumiller, "if you know the bear you're dealing with. Certain bears, you'd never want to be that close; other bears, you're just fine." Unknown bears are treated with the respect and latitude you would afford a stranger encountered on a dark street.
John Hechtel, Fish and Game's regional refuge manager, has studied grizzly bears and their behavior on the North Slope and in the interior of Alaska, as well as in Canada's Yukon Territory. He's accustomed to spending long days and tremendous amounts of effort far in the backcountry squinting through a field scope to make observations of a single brown bear or family. At McNeil one can watch hundreds ofinteractions and behaviors performed by dozens of bears--all in a short time andat close range, and undisturbed by the presence of people. "Here," he says, "you have a lifetime experience every day."