7 Essentials of Bear Viewing Etiquette
Updated: Jan 14
Written by Lance Bassett, one of Emerald Air Service's Naturalist Guides.
As stated in a previous post on Facebook (October 14th), the brown bear is an indicator species. In order to protect such an incredible animal, we must understand them in their natural environment, disturbed by human presence. These places are hard to find in today’s world; however, we are able to see into the bears’ territory while we are visiting Katmai National Park. In this article, we explore the best practices in bear safety.
There are many things that are constantly being reassessed while bear viewing, some of which are:
Are we giving the bear enough space?
Does the bear have an exit?
How is our profile?
Can we move without altering the bear’s behavior?
As part-time visitors to Katmai National Park, we want to respect the bears in their habitat. We practice sound bear etiquette that has been used and proven for decades. During our pre-tour safety briefing, I cover numerous guidelines, rules, and etiquette, which we use in order to safely observe the bears while not disturbing them. We have to understand that we are in the bears’ world—not ours—and everything that we do in the field matters to their health and survivability.
1. We Do Not Surprise the Bear
We always want the bear to see, hear, or smell us so we make sure to never surprise, sneak up, or hide from them. While out in the field, we can talk at normal conversation levels, but when we are near a bear, we will always talk softly and calmly while remaining in the open.
2. We Safely Approach the Bear
While approaching bears, we never want to go straight towards them. This is a predatory tactic and we are not predators; we are guests and need to act accordingly. When we do approach a bear, we will zig zag slowly towards them, stopping occasionally to make sure they are comfortable with our presence
3. We Give Bears Space
We will always give bears their space. As stated by Katmai National Park rules, we cannot approach a bear closer than 50 yards. There are instances where we may not approach that close due to:
the bears behavior,
a sow with cubs,
or bears eating or sleeping.
We are constantly watching for any changes in behavior, and if there is, we will change ours.
4. We Stay Off the Creek Banks
During the salmon run, when we are viewing along the creeks, we stay out of the water unless we are crossing, and we always stand off of the bank. The bears use the creeks edge primarily as trails, but they are also used for chasing salmon. If we are on the bank and a bear has to go around us, we have failed at our mission.
5. We Keep Our Posture Non-Threatening
Our body posture and profile have a direct impact on how the bear react to our presence. When bears first meet each other, a lot of the time one will sit, and then the other may sit. This is a non-threating, non-aggressive posture indicating to the other bear that no harm is intended. We do the same thing in certain situations including when a bear looks at us in a nervous/unsure way, around cubs (especially spring cubs) or when bear are close aboard. Besides this, we sit a lot anyway because it is comfortable, reduces our intimidating profile and the bear expect it.
6. We Minimize Our Impact
While traveling through bear country, we want to minimize our impact on the environment and the bear. We primarily travel on bear trails and stay out of their food source. This is a primary concern during the early season when the bears are in the sedge meadows. We stay in the high grass that they do not eat to minimize destroying the vitally important goose tongue and other sedges that they need. It may take us a little longer to get to a spot, but in the end, it is about the bears, not us.
7. We Always Give Bears the Right of Way
While on a trail in a meadow or through woods, the bear will always have the right of way. We will all step off on the same side of the trail, as briefed by your guide, and kneel or sit.
There are always unknown situations and situations that play out incredibly fast. What is most important is the safety of our guests. This will never be compromised. It is up to the guide to be able to read the bears posture and intent in order to anticipate what they are going to do.