An Interview with Chris Day, Co-Founder of Emerald Air Service: Part 2
Question 7: How has bear viewing changed over the years?
In 1991, bear viewing was considered “adventure travel,” meaning, people who booked it wanted to be a little scared—to come away with the story that they spent the day with the brown bears and survived, maybe some frightening close call to make the story interesting. It was always fun for me to see attitudes change and people come away with awe, respect, and understanding rather than fear. Generally, it was younger people who booked the trip, often men. No one was ever disappointed in the fact that bears are actually pretty easy animals to be around if we acted and reacted the way they expected—not the trumped up general opinions of the day. So one big change is the expectations of the guests and the type of guest that does a bear trip—the pendulum swung too far the other way for a while and people didn’t understand why an infant or toddler couldn’t do the trip, but it has damped out about where it should be, somewhere in the middle. It’s a safe thing to do under supervision for just about anyone physically fit enough to do it. It’s a great family activity as long as children are old enough to pay attention and follow orders, and have an attention span appropriate for a day outside.
7.1 Agencies and Rules Have Changed
Because of the well run program at McNeil River, the State has always been more open-minded about bear viewing as an activity. The National Park System has always been more regimented, in essence creating fear-based reactions to bears, and people and bears. We—those that knew the reality—worked for a number of years with the two agencies, state and national. As government agencies often are, they were territorial and competitive in a sense, and they both felt their regulations were the best. Because both bears and operators cross lines between state and federal lands, it was important to hash out something that worked for everyone. There was a learning curve: policy writers, whether for the state or federal grounds, had to be educated, literally “shown” in many cases what the realty was. Lots of meetings transpired and the agencies got together to come up with a uniform set of guidelines for being around bears.
7.2 A Solution: Living in Harmony with Bears
In 2000, Audubon Society published a book that Derek Stonorov authored after he worked with all the agencies: Living in Harmony with Bears (it was even distributed to all subscribers of the Anchorage Daily News). Out of print now, we are trying to bring it back into print. I don't remember the exact distances, but in 1991 it was actually illegal for people viewing bears to be within hundreds of yards of a bear—any bear, especially a female with cubs. If a bear approached you, you were expected to back up, which is a very bad message to give the bear. Those distances have been shortened (not sure on the exact distance, check park rules) and the general behavior rules have been changed as well. We are not allowed, and should never “approach” a bear. But if a bear is approaching us, we should stand our ground and discourage the bear if it comes too close. Rules and regulators have become more flexible and fluid—after all, it’s a dynamic situation out there with the bears. What works in one situation may not in the next, so we have to be able to be adaptable. So, yes, things have changed, rules have softened and become more realistic, making it easier for operators to provide a good experience for their guests and the bears, without fear of citations. In my opinion, we have come a long ways toward the reality of the situation—that bears are animals that can be safe to be around as long as we are aware and respectful. Attitudes have really changed for the better since 1991, but we still have work to do.
7.3 The Audience has Changed, Too
So, yes, bear viewing has changed in many ways. In 1991, you saw very few other people out with the bears, generally fishermen, but now as bear viewing has become a big business, it’s hard to find a place where you won't be around many other people. This will be the challenge going forward: not overusing these areas to the detriment of the bears first and foremost, and the experience itself.
Question 8: Was Living in Harmony with Bears helpful to the situation? Did it clarify state and national regulations?
Chris Day: Yes and yes. The whole process leading up to the book was helpful for sure, and regulations were clarified in the process of producing the book. We used to give a copy to everyone who did our trip (we are trying to get it back into publication now. Audubon is working on it—funding issues).