Late Night at Brooks Falls

August 31, 2015 Posted by: Tori Anderson

Though we don’t set off fireworks at Brooks Camp for the Fourth of July, bear viewing at the falls provides an equally interesting display. This year, I decided to celebrate Independence Day with the latter (and more NPS-approved) option, with the hopes of retaining my golden badge and flat hat privileges. From 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. June 15 to August 15, the platforms and boardwalks at Brooks Falls are closed. In order to better understand how bears use the falls when no humans are present, I assisted Brooks Camp’s bear monitor, Leslie Skora, with an overnight monitoring session from 10:30 p.m. - 12:30 a.m., then again from 4 to 7 a.m.

Nighttime monitoring sessions at the falls are one of the many projects run by Leslie (watch the live chat about the bear monitoring program). This summer she conducted five overnight monitoring sessions at the falls, all in July.Because of these monitoring efforts, we know that nighttime closures allow bears that are not tolerant of people (non human-habituated bears) greater access to Brooks Falls. When people occupy the wildlife viewing platform at Brooks Falls, certain bears avoid the area or use the falls differently. The nighttime closure to human activity allows brown bears who are not human-habituated greater access to Brooks Falls. 

Shadows from people casted on bear
Shadows of bear viewers rain down on a bear. Not all bears are this tolerant of the close proximity of people. Certain bears use the falls differently when people are absent. NPS/T. Anderson

With backpacks full of overnight gear, rangers Leslie, Landis, and I begin our adventure. As we approach the falls, one bold park ranger jokingly asks to see our research permit. Indeed, to stay at the falls after hours, Leslie must obtain a permit proving that her presence is condoned by the park. These permits are not handed out lightly. To obtain a permit, one must prove that the knowledge gained through research will help park officials better manage the area’s resources. Indeed, past research indicates that the presence of people alters how bears use the river. This is the primary reason for closing the falls platform at night—to allow access to more bears.

When we arrive at the platform, we find bear 747 fishing alone in the far pool. Though he makes no visible indication of noticing us, he is no doubt aware of our presence, whether through his keen sense of smell or other acute senses. In the windy Alaskan drizzle, we sit down on the platform and remain quiet and still to maintain a low profile.

people holding clipboard while standing on platform in front of waterfallLeslie Skora (left) and Tori Anderson (right) prepare data sheets for an overnight bear monitoring session at Brooks Falls. NPS/T. Anderson.

After an hour, 747 leaves the falls and bear 755, the aptly named Scare D Bear, comes out to fish. In previous years, 755 has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the nightly falls closure. As a younger bear, 755 shied away from large groups of people. When he did fish during the day, he would fish in the far pool, distancing himself from the crowded viewing platform. Bears like 755 remind us of how humans impact bears, even when we are elevated several feet off the ground. Studies conducted in Brooks Camp have shown that loud disturbances on elevated walkways significantly influence bears’ activity. With a large scale elevated bridge scheduled for completion by the summer of 2017, this is a reality to keep in mind when utilizing elevated infrastructure at Brooks Camp.

bear walking in water in front of rock wallWhen people are conspicuous, 755 Scare D Bear rarely visits the platform side of Brooks Falls. NPS/L. Skora.

Later that night, bear 128 Grazer comes out to accompany bear 755. Though very human-habituated, 128 still enjoys the opportunities that a quiet falls presents. Our ranger group breaks for a short nap at 12:30 a.m., then returns at 4:00 a.m. for another round of monitoring. Upon our return to the platform, bear 755 is still fishing. At this point, things get a little fuzzy for me (and not because I cuddled with the bears). Somewhere during this second half of the night, I blink and see not 755 but 747. At 7 a.m., we end our session with 747 fishing the far pool and me horizontal on the platform—a technique I defend as necessary for minimizing my impact on the bears.

blond colored bear standing at waterfall128 Grazer visits the falls regardless of the amount of human activity. NPS/T. Anderson.

Though many of the bears at Brooks Camp are habituated to humans, not all are, and the NPS aims to protect all brown bears in the park, regardless of their comfort around humans. Human-habituated bears like128 have spent many seasons in Brooks Camp learning the boundaries that exist between them and humans. Other bears, however, have not had the same experiences and are not as tolerant of humans. Each year, several bears new to Brooks Camp visit the area to take advantage of the plentiful salmon run. Not only must these bears learn to fish at a new stream with several dominant bears around, they also must learn how to act around humans. Some will never learn to tolerate the close proximity of people. These bears may simply avoid using the river when people are present.

Each bear has a unique past that informs its present behavior and tolerance around humans. As visitors in their home, park staff and tourists must respect all types of bears, habituated and non-habituated alike, in order to protect the wild quality of Brooks Camp. The nightly closure at the falls is one way the park manages for this outcome. While the park must constantly evaluate the effectiveness of its management techniques through research such as Ranger Leslie’s overnight bear monitoring sessions, visitors - including park staff - have the ultimate say in the future of Brooks Camp. Visitors’ commitment to park rules and wildlife viewing etiquette will determine the feasibility of Brooks Camp as a bear viewing location in years to come. The park’s management decisions and visitors’ collective actions will determine whether Brooks Camp can be home for all bears, or simply human-habituated bears.

Pins and junior ranger badgeBy wearing brown bear booster pin, Katmai junior ranger badge, or a bear etiquette pin you are enlisted to help protect Katmai's bears. NPS/T. Anderson.

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bear, bears, Brooks River, Brooks Camp, Brown Bear, research

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  2. September 05, 2015 at 05:15

    @Frank: Normally at Brooks Camp, a human presence in itself is not sufficient motivation for a non human-habituated bear to hurt a human. This bear will simply wander to a different area where humans are not present and they can still feed. Other factors, however, may complicate a human's presence and yield a different outcome, even with human-habituated bears. For example, if a human stands near a concentrated food source such as a carcass, surprises a bear at close proximity, or finds himself between a sow and her cub, the situation could escalate quickly. Clues such as jaw-popping, huffing, and displaced aggression alert humans of a situation undesirable for a bear. Being powerful animals, bears are capable of acting swiftly and violently toward humans, and will not hesitate to do so if their own survival is at stake. This aggression could result in management consequences lethal toward the bear. In order to best protect the safety of humans and the bears, it is best to avoid stressing bears and pushing their boundaries. Many of the behaviors that bears exhibit at Brooks Camp are akin to behaviors they exhibit in areas where humans are not as prevalent. No matter where they are and what factors are at play, brown bears remain curious, resilient, and strategic animals trying to survive. However, factors unique to the various locations they visit may cause them to employ different strategies to ensure survival. A bear more habituated to humans when at Brooks Camp may exhibit more caution toward humans encountered in a more "wild" location. Katmai has not done any studies on how bears' personalities differ based on setting that I know of, though it would be an interesting question to pursue if resources allowed. Based off of what we know about bears, however, it seems likely that they will react to the same stimulus differently depending on their associations with and expectations for different locations.

  3. September 05, 2015 at 01:03

    @Larry: During her monitoring sessions, Ranger Leslie and any volunteers sit down on the platform floor behind the railing. The railing which she remains behind during the study acts as a pseudo-blind. Though a real blind may work slightly better, the disturbance created when setting up a temporary blind in the brief time before the survey begins would offset the benefit gained by a slightly better visual obstruction. Some bear viewing locations in other parts of Alaska do have platforms with blinds permanently installed in order to minimize human impact, but this does not exist at Brooks Camp.

  4. September 05, 2015 at 12:52

    @Ed: In 2014, two infrared emitters were installed at the falls, so we do have night vision abilities. The night vision capabilities we currently have still do not provide adequate resolution for Ranger Leslie to identify the bears. Its coverage is also limited. Ranger Leslie scans everywhere above the riffles (the shallow whitewater section downriver of the falls), including immediately underneath and behind the platform. She might also count a bear that she is reasonably sure to be resting just out of sight (behind a willow, for example), even though she cannot see it at the moment. Perhaps one day Katmai could possess the technology necessary to identify bears and install cameras to provide adequate coverage. Before this change would be accepted, the park would have to discuss how the use of new technology might impact the results obtained from the over twenty-year-old survey. Accurate data is of course desirable, but if the new technology were to change the nature of the study drastically, new technology may not help obtain data in a consistent manner over time.

  5. September 04, 2015 at 10:16

    As a completely disinterested reader I can say this was a most informative post. I particularly liked the photo of the bear "overshadowed" by the shadows of the observers. You say in your next to last paragraph "Some will never learn to tolerate the close proximity of people. These bears may simply avoid using the river when people are present." Does this sort of bear ever take the third, unspoken alternative, of becoming overtly aggressive with humans, or do the bears just understand they would be the ultimate losers if they did? And to what extent does understanding bear behavior around Brooks lead to deeper understanding of their behavior in the truly wilderness areas, of the park and elsewhere? And do the bears that habituate "well" to humans at Brooks take on different personalities (bear-sonalities?) when they leave? I guess you'd have to take Ed's suggestion and set up a lot of IR cameras in the backcountry to really answer this. Anyway, good article.

  6. September 04, 2015 at 08:55

    Interesting article. My wife and I got married at the Brooks Falls bear viewing platform at 5 pm on August 12, 1984. Saw lots of bears and flyfishing for rainbows was good during our trip. No bears at our ceremony as luck would have it. Considerable changes since then--a lot more visitation now, esp day trips. I wondered why you didn't use a blind on the platform to lessen your visible presence during your observations, even if olfactory presence would still likely be detected by the bears. Night vision equipment/cameras have also developed to the point where resolution is probably good enough for bear ID overnight as well.

  7. Ed
    September 01, 2015 at 09:01

    Interesting article. It was probably pretty exciting to see some of the "shy" bears at night. I am wondering if you can improve your experiment by truly monitoring the falls at night with **no people present**? Will the platform video cameras image in the dark? That way you could also get some measurements that truly have no people present at the falls? I have witnessed that one person, in the Katmai backcountry, will affect a bears behavior from very far away (in fact, most bears I have seen in the backcountry of Katmai NP ran off at the first site of my kayak, or me walking). Hopefully the existing video cameras will work in the dark, and if they do not, you can purchase pretty good ones these days for ~$100 that do have night time (infrared) video along with motion triggers ( I am sure you have seen videos of these to monitor wildlife...).

  8. September 01, 2015 at 06:18

    I have been to Brooks 4 times and I have often wondered if our presence bothers these beautiful animals. I try my best to be as quiet as possible while on the Falls platform. I hope I have never put stress on them. Brown Bears are my favorite animal and I respect and admire them.

  9. September 01, 2015 at 05:42

    Excellent article, well written and informative. Kudos to you, Tori.

  10. September 01, 2015 at 04:55

    Our curiosities and desire to see nature up close sounds like it upsets Mother Nature. I wouldn't like it if the brown bears were on platforms watching me eat Micky D's. Very informative-thank you

  11. September 01, 2015 at 04:05

    Thanks this was very interesting Good Job

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Last updated: September 2, 2015

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