Take Care if You're Visiting Alaska National Parks, As Bears Aren't Being Bashful

Brown bears in Alaska can be fascinating to watch, but remember to keep your distance and properly store food and gear. NPS photo.

Two recent bear incidents in national parks in Alaska should send a message to all visitors that they have to be particularly vigilant when traveling in bear country.

In one case last week, two Katmai National Park archaeologists were forced to kill a brown bear after it attacked them. In the other, three kayakers in Glacier Bay National Park encountered a sub-adult brown bear that rummaged through their gear.

In the first case, the Katmai archaeologists had been camping and working on an offshore island for several days when a lone bear appeared at their campsite, according to park officials. "The bear showed continued aggressive behavior towards both members of the crew and was not easily chased away from their campsite. Various means were employed to dissuade the bear from approaching, including loud noises, visual displays and at one point pepper spray," reports Chief Ranger Neal Labrie. "At no time did the bear obtain food or other items from the campsite. On the morning of July 13th, the bear made an unprovoked charge at one of the archeologists while the camp was being dismantled for departure. Both archeologists fired their weapons to stop the charge, resulting in the bear’s death."

Park officials are continuing to investigate the incident. Samples have been collected from the animal and will be examined as part of the investigation. "While this level of aggression towards people has been rare in the Katmai area, it should serve as a reminder to all visitors and staff that bears and other animals in the park are wild and exhibit unpredictable behavior. Adherence to existing food storage and viewing regulations are essential to the safety of both people and the wildlife around them," noted the chief ranger.

At Glacier Bay, park officials posted a notice about recent bear activity at the mouth of Queen and Rendu Inlets. On July 11, three kayakers camping on the point of land between the inlets encountered a single subadult brown bear who investigated their property and caused minor damage to gear stored in their kayaks. The campers attempted to deter the bear by yelling and waving arms but the bear did not leave the area until the campers packed up and left, the park reported. On July 14, a different party of three encountered a bear of similar description in the same vicinity. The bear investigated and chewed on closed bear canisters until the campers scared it off by yelling and banging on their kayaks.

Glacier Bay officials are advising campers to avoid camping in this area until August 17 to avoid further bear-human conflicts. Additionally, they note that two important keys to minimizing the potential for conflicts include storing food and attractants properly and keeping control of gear and property at all times.

Comments

Based on the report, it would seem that the archeologists took reasonable precautions to avoid a bear conflict. However, we should wait for the final investigation report before jumping to conclusions.

During the years spent living with and studying the subsistence practices of Native Alaskans one basic rule impressed upon me was, do not camp on a bear trail or near where bears may be feeding. The mere oder of food and human waste can draw bears. I have seen bears dig up a buried cesspool shredding the log crib. The buildup of human waste near a fixed campsite can attract bears and other wildlife. Faint odors that humans cannot detect can be picked up by bears literally miles away.

I lived in Alaska for 20 years. Brown bears are dangerous up there. If you go into the woods, be prepared. This is actually more common place than you'd think by that article. Brown bears charge very often in Alaska. Several of my friends have been charged while fishing on the Kenai River.

They have a lot of competition for available food. They are very territorial. Bears have even returned to the city of Anchorage with the restocking of fish in the city creeks and river systems.

Every black bear I ever ran across in Alaska seemed way more afraid of me than I was of it. If you're out in the wilderness of Alaska- be well armed. Browns are to be very wary of and respected.


-- On storminator's point, we had black bears in the Brooks Range that would pursue you unrelentingly. These was very different behavior than I'd come to expect from the brown bear of VA mountains. These black bears in the Brooks Range seemed to be scavengers, and I supposed they had succeeded in getting food from people who used the alpine lakes as drop-off and pick up points. But I don't really know. Just that those black bears did appear threatening, while the brown bear in the vicinity seemed to go out of their way to avoid people. They would just slide away, most of the time.

-- On Ray Bane's point about camping away from a place a bear frequents, I wonder if that bear had in fact regularly used that island where the archeologists were camping. From his point of view, the archeologists would have been the interlopers.

I'm no expert at archeological practice in southern Alaska, but from what I do know I believe that the archeological sites and the prime bear habitat are often the same place. Bears are attracted by the same things that have attracted human use over the millenia: great fishing, hunting, gathering or all three. Maybe the island had long been a place of human habitation, AND bear habitation. Perhaps someone could tell me, but is it not possible that a single bear could have been highly territorial toward that specific place?? It seemed to me that the bears of Katmai were driven by habit, but again this is not extensive experience, but it is my experience.

One of the most interesting things I did when I lived in Alaska was to go to a bear symposium, and hear wildlife experts discuss bear facts. A number of myths were also debunked. Did you know for an example that bears can actually be attracted to pepper-based bear spray? that is why you never use it as a so-called "repellant" before a potential bear encounter, and why you get out of the area quickly after using it. Bears also have social interactive skills, so if they are around multiple bears, they act better. In other words, bears who are around many other bears, can often be safer to people than a bear who lives in an isolated area with few or no other bears. Brown bears are intelligent, and sensitive, and can test something new or intiguing within its home range. They love tents, salmon cook-outs on the beach, and berries. Guns are worthless in bear country, for normal outdoor visitor use. That is because you become overconfident, and a gun won't stop a brown bear in time to prevent contact anyhow.

Ben Lord

well, obviously "cato54" didn't read the press release from katmai national park... clearly guns work pretty well in bear country! the archeologists shot and killed an attacking, aggressive bear. but cato54's right about one thing: guns are of little help in "normal outdoor visitor use." guns are useless unless you are properly trained, and more useless when they are insufficient for the job. because the archeologists are national park service employees, i strongly suspect they were well-trained to use the proper equipment.

The same archaeologist who shot this bear has a very cavalier attitude towards bears but very little experience...He was seen the summer before fishing on the Brooks River with a handgun strapped to his chest and only a NPS ball cap to identify himself as an employee. Talking with other rangers who were involved with the archaeologists on the coast (stationed at the Amalik Bay cabin) there seem to be some very suspicious things with this incident. Ask yourself how many bears have been shot by employees while working in the back-country prior to this incident. Answer: Zero. Suspicious indeed. The archaeologists claimed to have "problems" with this bear for numerous days, but then was "forced" to shoot the bear just minutes before getting picked up to leave. One of the Amalik bay rangers offered to give the archaeologists a flare to use to dissuade any undesirable behavior (a tool used by many commercial guides) but the cavalier archaeologist stated that he would try it out after using his gun. In addition, the archaeologists never received any bear safety training on the use of deterrent rounds. It seems to me that Katmai would like to simply shove this under the rug.