About the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear
Brown bears have been legends in North America for as long as mankind’s memory. They’ve represented the powerful frontier since Lewis and Clark published their journals, and their story of meeting a brown bear captured the imagination of their readers. The Coastal Brown Bear, larger than it's interior grizzly cousin, can only thrive where it has the resources needed to support it's massive bulk. Bears are an indicator species, meaning that when the Coastal Brown Bear is thriving, the habitat is thriving too. When you get to see many of these amazing creatures grazing off of sedge flats along the coast or chasing salmon in creeks further inland, you are seeing an untouched, old, and still-thriving world. In order to protect such an incredible animal, we must understand them in their natural environment, undisturbed by human presence.
Summer in Katmai
June to mid/late July finds us along the coastal sedge flats, watching as the bears beach-comb and graze on succulent spring grasses. It is mating season—we may see large males pursuing the females. June is the time new spring cubs are being introduced into the general population of bears. Young sub-adults are playfully celebrating the return of summer.
In mid/late July to mid August, many of the streams and rivers along the Alaska Range fill with salmon returning to the very streams in which they were spawned. The bears with hefty appetites after a long winter's fast are waiting for the salmon. Each bear has their favorite fishing spot and unique fishing style.
Middle August to September finds the bears fat and sleek, moving between the salmon streams and the abundant ripe berries on the hillsides. Appetites sated, they prepare to den. After the salmon run bounty, these graceful and agile creatures are satiated, lumbering, and glossy.
Safety IN BEAR COUNTRY
Sometimes in spite of the best intentions, we have unwanted encounters with bears.
FROM THE OUTSET
Plan how you are going to react when you meet an inquisitive, intelligent, and potentially dangerous animal in the back country or in your neighborhood. Make a habit of being calm and deliberate in your movements and mindset.
Many bears in Alaska have had interactions with people. As our population increases this number will grow. What a bear learns in one encounter influences what it does in the next. Try to make every encounter positive for you, the bear, and the next person that bear meets. If we want bears to be non-threatening and predicable, it is important that we reciprocate.
Bears don't like to be surprised. If you are hiking in a place where you can't see, make your presence known by talking or clapping your hands. A very good practice is to keep small rocks in a metal water bottle. We've noticed that the sharp rattle of gravel is an effective bear deturant.
Travel with a group
While this isn't always practical, the larger the group the smaller the risk of attack. Groups of people seem to intimidate bears. Bears are more likely to approach one or two people. Keep close together. To the bear, groups of people being strung out along a trail in single file creates many groups of one.
YOU SPOT A BEAR
Don't Approach the bear
Moving towards a bear is aggressive behavior. It forces the bear to react. If you inadvertently approach a bear and feel the bear is not aware of your presence, take advantage of the situation and slowly move away. Carefully watch to make sure the bear is not following.
Making eye contact with a bear is unlikely to affect the outcome of an encounter
It is important to keep the bear in sight so that you give yourself the opportunity to detect important visual clues to the bears behavior.
If a bear approaches, keep calm. It is assessing the situation as it moves towards you. It is picking up clues as fast as you are giving them. If you get excited, the bear could, too. It may change from being curious to being frightened. When under stress, a mother with cubs who was defensively keeping you away may switch to the offensive.
A Bear May Approach You for Different Reasons
It might be habituated or used to people, so the bear may walk by at a distance with which it is comfortable. The bear may be curious. You may be on its trail. You may be in the bear's personal space and it feels threatened. It may want your food. A female bear may perceive you as a threat to her cubs. A bear may want to dominate you and, in extremely rare circumstances, investigate you as potential prey.
The Bear Continues to Approach
Identify Yourself as a Human and do not run
Talk to the bear in a low voice. Do not run. Running can initiate a prey drive and bears can run about 35 mph—even the fat ones. Instead, increase your distance. Bears avoid antagonistic encounters by moving away from one another. If the bear is not moving towards you, try to move away very cautiously. If your movement causes the bear to move towards you, stop and hold your ground. When you do this, you are using body language to say, "don't mess with me."
Bears may come quite close
Bears may come close as they decide what to do. If we behave correctly, identifying ourselves, standing our ground, or giving the bear room, the bear should make the right decision—sometimes not as quickly as we would like—and move off. If a bear persists and continues towards you, hold your ground. The bear is interested in you or something you have and may cause you bodily harm. Yell and look as large as possible, unzipping your coat to create the largest silhouette you can. You are trying to tell the bear you are not intimidated. Groups of people should stand shoulder to shoulder to project a larger presence.
Most Charges Stop Short of Contact if You React Appropriately
A head down, open-mouthed, running charge is a bear's last resort. It is a defensive reaction to a perceived threat. The bear is telling you that it is highly stressed and you are in the wrong place. Charges happen so quickly there isn't much time for reaction. A charge almost always ends short of contact. Stay calm and hold your ground.
THE BEAR FACTS
Alaska is bear country. You should expect to meet bears almost anywhere you travel throughout the state. Bear densities are highest in places where human density is the lowest. The Alaska Peninsula has one of the highest densities of brown bears in the world.
When a bear meets a person, it communicates with the person as it would with another bear. Understanding this behavior is the best way to avoid problems.
Bears are predictable
They are only unpredictable if we don't understand them.
Bears are social
Bears of one area are familiar with one another and meetings consist of complex social exchanges.
Bears live in a social hierarchy
Mature males are generally at the top while cubs are at the bottom. Bears maintain their relative position within the hierarchy by being combative.
Bears are not territorial
Bears share home ranges, however, bears will defend their personal space. Bears have a "critical space" around them—this critical space is different for every bear and varies from situation to situation.
bears are curious about their environment
While bears usually choose to avoid people, they often explore and examine new things in their world, be it a person walking or a tent—this is not aggressive behavior.
Bears are not always aware
Bears are a top-of-the-food-chain predator. They have few fears. A bear following a trail doesn't always look ahead and a sleeping bear often sleeps very soundly.
A standing bear is not acting aggressively
Bears stand to get a better sense of what has attracted their attention.
Bears can see at least as well as we do
And their sense of smell is many times more acute than ours.
Females with cubs are no more dangerous than any other bear
All bears have the potential to be dangerous and should be treated with respect and caution. Travel through their country cautiously and expect to see bears at any time.
BEAR VIEWING ETIQUETTE
While viewing the bears on your trip there are certain do's and don'ts that allow us to get along with the bears. First and foremost, we have to remember that we are in the bears' house and the cardinal rule is do not interrupt the bear's activities. We try very hard not to alter the bears behavior in any way. If a bear reacts to us, we are doing something wrong. If we scare a bear, we have failed as bear watchers. The bears we view are populations that have become accustomed to our presence, many individual bears most certainly recognize our groups. They tolerate us because our groups are predictable.
Bears are intelligent animals. They are often as curious about us as we are about them. On a trip we will position ourselves out in the open—visible to the bears. We won't approach bears, but they often approach us, in which case we hold our ground because it is important that bears don't learn to make people move. Sub-adults and females with cubs sometimes approach the group. If we react the way they expect us to react—by sitting quietly and enjoying the encounter—they will be content close to our group, giving us amazing photo opportunities and memories for a lifetime.
Our trips are ethical and responsible. Human-habituated bears who haven't learned to associate people with food can be remarkably tolerant and rarely cause injuries. It is our mission to maintain that relationship between people and the Katmai Coastal Brown Bears.
For more information about Bear Viewing Etiquette, read this article.