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Would a Change in Gun Laws Be a Threat to National Park Bears?

Katmai bears. NPS Photo.

Could Katmai's brown bears be at risk if national park gun laws are changed? NPS photo.

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.


i would love to travel to alaska to hunt and fish but traveling thru the states with a weapon , i would not be able to go thru a national park is absurd. nobody in there right mind should get that close to a bear. with or without a gun.

Julie Helgeson and Michelle Koons would probably still alive today if just one person in their party or a nearby party had a firearm available. In fact, many of the persons listed at

might still be here. Not all, but many.

Obviously you do not live here in Alaska. Thousands of people frequently come in close proximity with bears here, and there is no problem. I for one spend countless hours in the field with both wolves and bears. If you are that afraid, perhaps you should not be hunting, and certainly not in Alaska.

That's simply not true. Two people were killed on the Hula Hula River a couple years ago, and they had a firearm. They were killed in their tent, by a bear that was likely food conditioned by litter at local fish camps. Statistically speaking, you are safer with pepper spray than gun.

No Guns Should Be allowed in our national parks PLAIN AND SIMPLE NONE AT ALL.

The park rangers aren't even around to catch poachers cutting down redwood trees. And we are supposed to expect them to be around to protect us from attacks from animals or drug dealers in the back country? My wife and I are thinking of avoiding national parks in the future and just patronizing the national forests where we can protect ourselves.

Dave, I'm just curious on something. You say that you are thinking of avoiding NPs and only visit national forests "where we can protect ourselves." Do you do that currently in your day-to-day life? What I mean is, do you only travel to cities or states where you are able to carry a weapon for protection? I'm not trying to incite with this comment, I'm sincerely curious. I know there are cities (like Washington, DC) which do not allow handguns, concealed or otherwise, and some states (like California) that prohibit concealed weapons. Do you apply the same standards outside the national park when you determine where you will/won't travel to?

I really like what Wildvisions had to say... I spent much of last summer out in the interior of Alaska. And sadly (from my perspective), the only place I saw a brown bear was inside Denali National Park. But I spent three months at various locations around the Alaska range, the Brooks range and all along the haul road. Alaska was FABULOUS, but much of the 'rumors' I'd heard before my trip were terribly false. I was trained to watch bear behavior and to protect myself from the larger mammals. But my pepper spray just gathered dust all summer.

If you're that worried about bears, perhaps you need a bit more experience. I never see enough wildlife to suit me when I'm in the field. LOL


"To defrauded town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to the feast.... A day in the mountains is worth a mountain of books." -- John Muir

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