Published online 21 August 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news030818-14

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Alaska Diary Part 2: Bear

Boom in bear viewing brings animals and tourists uncomfortably close.

Ten grizzly bears are strung out across the Brooks River. The animals are gorging on salmon, plucking them from the air as the fish leap up the five-foot barrier of Brooks Falls.

On an elevated observation platform a few metres from the riverbank, 40 tourists train their lenses on the bears. In the past 20 years visitor numbers to Katmai National Park, through which the Brooks River flows, have trebled to more than 50,000 each year.

With more and more people meeting more and more bears, there are risks for both parties.

On 15 July 2003, a man at the Russian River, one of Alaska's most popular destinations for anglers, was badly mauled by a female grizzly, losing an eye and part of his face. This year, 16 bears in the region have been shot "in defence of life and property", as state law allows.

The incident has moved officials to ban people from some stretches of the river at night. One local journalist has called for some bears to be shot to make the rest more wary of humans.

In Alaska, wildlife managers are walking a tightrope, trying to balance people's desire to see bears with other concerns: safety, the animals' needs and the requirements of anglers, who also flock to Alaskan rivers in search of salmon.

Ursine wave

Alaska is the grizzly's last stronghold. It is home to more than half the grizzly bears in North America - about 30,000, compared with about 1,000 in the rest of the United States, where the animal is classed as threatened. Stronger protection and warmer weather have helped the state's bear population to increase during the past few decades. Katmai has the highest density of the animals in North America.

Bear attacks on humans are very rare - no Brooks visitor has been mauled for at least 20 years. But it only needs one bear to get hold of one sandwich to create a problem. "If bears start to associate humans with food, the situation will change dramatically," says Deb Liggett, superintendent of Katmai National Park.

Tourists may also be causing more subtle changes in bear behaviour. Many experienced bear-watchers think that females and young bears have learnt to seek people out to avoid large males, which kill many cubs but shy away from human company. "We've turned into babysitters," comments Gary Porter, a bear-viewing guide.

Some want to interfere with ursine life as little as possible. "I can't imagine a more arrogant statement than 'bear management'," says Liggett. "Bears manage bears: we're trying to manage human interactions with bears."

Others advocate active steps to prevent bears from disrupting human activities. "I don't think we should let sows and cubs hang around people," says Sonny Peterson, president of Katmailand, the private company that runs the accommodation at Brooks River. "We should chase them off, and give them a natural, healthy respect of people."

A large squad of rangers herds the tourists at Brooks, closing paths if bears get too close. But there are no limits on visitor numbers. It's also about a half-mile walk from the arrival point to the falls, giving many opportunities for people and bears to meet.

In some areas of Alaska bear viewing is more tightly controlled, with numbers limited. Attempts to cap visitor numbers at Brooks, and to shift facilities closer to the main viewing areas, have failed so far, owing to opposition from the business community.

Bear viewing in the United States has come a long way since the 1960s, when there were seats around the rubbish dump in Yellowstone National Park, so people could ogle scavenging grizzlies. But if tourism continues to increase at its present rate, it could be a challenge to keep Alaska's bears and people from hurting one another. "When there's bear-human conflict, the bears come off worse," comments John Hechtel, a bear biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Alaskan bear-viewing phenomenon is part of a worldwide boom in wildlife tourism - 2002 was the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism. Tourists bring money into rural economies, which can help to build support for conservation.

But we could love wildlife to death. Studies at bird reserves in Florida have shown that visitors can disrupt mating behaviour. And in East Africa, crowds of tourist buses have led cheetahs to change their hunting routines.