About the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear
What, When, and Where
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.
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 Alaskan 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 with the expectation to see bears at any time.
IN BEAR COUNTRY
Sometimes in spite of the best intentions, we have unwanted encounters with bears.
FROM THE OUTSET
Be Prepared – 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.
Be Predictable – 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.
Be Careful – 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...
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.