Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, the Bush administration has announced that it will re-open 25-year-old regulations governing firearms in America’s national parks.
The current regulations governing gun possession in America's national parks simply require that guns be unloaded and stowed -- reasonable and limited regulations that were established during the Reagan administration. These regulations exclude units of the National Park System that allow hunting and they enable hunters to safely transport guns when traveling through national parks on their way to nearby hunting grounds. In fact, in Alaska, you can carry a loaded weapon in all units except Klondike Gold Rush, Sitka, and the former Mt. McKinley National Park and Glacier Bay and Katmai National Monuments.
The National Parks Conservation Association supports the right of Americans to own guns and use them responsibly, but our Alaska Regional Office is concerned with how the change in gun regulations could affect Katmai National Park and Preserve, in particular.
Brooks Camp in Katmai is a popular brown bear viewing location. But unlike other popular bear viewing sites such as McNeil River, Brooks Camp has no limit on the number of people that can visit, so bears and lots of guests regularly mingle in close quarters. Our concern is that anxious park visitors not used to hanging around brown bears may over-react to bear behavior that is not life-threatening.
The National Park Service orients Brooks Camp visitors on how to behave around bears and they have a good system to keep people from coming in direct contact with bears, but ultimately it can't always be avoided. And you can just imagine the reaction of an armed visitor from the Lower 48 coming face-to-face with a Brooks brown bear behaving in a way that appears threatening.
Most visitors at Brooks Camp are very cautious around the bears - in part because they are unarmed. If visitors began carrying loaded guns, they may not take as much caution and care around the bears because they feel more protected.
In this situation, if a visitor armed with a handgun misreads bear behavior and panics, a series of possible events could occur:
1. The visitor fires a shot in the air to scare the bear. This likely won't scare a bear off, because although the Park Service tries to condition the bears to stay away from people, the reality is that the bears at Brooks Camp often just ignore loud noises.
2. At this point, the scared visitor could further panic and shoots the bear with the handgun, which is rarely fatal to a large coastal brown bear (a rifle would be more capable of killing a large bear). Now, you have a wounded (and potentially erratic) bear in and around a trail system, cabins, a lodge and a popular fishing stream all filled with people.
Shooting a bear in and around Brooks Camp would also put other park visitors at risk, as there are always other people on the trails or around the lodge and cabins. In a panic, when a visitor is frightened by a bear and opens fire, they may not be aware of the location of other visitors who may be nearby.
While most Alaskans embrace their firearms, they have accepted that in some of Alaska’s national park units - like Katmai - the lack of firearms provides for a unique park experience. Guns at Brooks Camp could blow that experience away.
Jim Stratton is the Alaska regional director for the NPCA.