People, Platforms, and Bears

July 21, 2015 Posted by: Michael Fitz

People watch bears at Brooks FallsThe wildlife viewing platforms at Brooks Falls are one the best places in the world to watch bears. However, do these platforms eliminate our impacts on the animals? NPS/M. Fitz.

Near Brooks Falls, a complex of elevated boardwalks and wildlife viewing platforms stand in the forest. Viewed from a distance, or even from the perspective of a person standing on the walkway, it may seem that the walkways eliminate our impact on bears. While the boardwalks and viewing platforms have substantially reduced bear-human conflicts near the falls, they haven’t eliminated them. Sometimes a bit of restraint and sacrifice, on our part, are needed to help bears.

The wildlife viewing platform at Brooks Falls was built in 1982 to provide physical separation between people and bears. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of bears increased and more people came to enjoy the spectacle. To further reduce bear-human conflicts near Brooks Falls, a new series of elevated boardwalks and wildlife viewing platforms opened to the public in 2000. Today, the elevated walkways substantially reduced close encounters between bears and people near Brooks Falls, but did it eliminate our impacts on the animals?

The platform at Brooks Falls is very popular. It was also designed to hold no more than 40 people. In July, when 200-300 people visit each day, competition for space at Brooks Falls can be fierce (and I’m not referring to bears!). When the Falls Platform is full, it is hard to find elbow room to enjoy the scene. Backpacks, cameras, tripods, and bodies completely fill the space. In these situations, people are tempted to migrate away from the platform, line the walkway, and enjoy a view of the bears unhindered by other people. How could you not want an unrestricted view of the falls? However, the temptation to move away from the crowded platform and get a clear view of the river ought to be resisted. 

people watching bears on crowded platformBears aren’t the only things competing for space at Brooks Falls. NPS/M. Fitz.

Each bear shows different levels of habituation toward people. A very human-habituated female with young cubs may walk under people, but her cubs (new to the area and with no prior experience around humans) might hesitate. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Mom walks underneath the line of people, but the cubs don’t, at least not right away. People are strange and noisy. The cubs’ instinct tells them to be cautious. A real possibility exists for the cubs to become separated from mom in these situations, especially if another bear enters the scenario.

Even adults may be impacted by people. Some bears will not approach the platforms or walkways when large groups of people are present. Our mere presence alone alters how bears use the river corridor. Some bears only use the north side of Brooks River, likely to avoid close contact with people (the platform complex is on the south side). Near the platform and walkways, when human use is highest, bear use is proportionally lower.

people standing at wildlife viewing platform near waterfallWhen the wildlife viewing platform at Brooks Falls is full, it is very tempting to watch bears from the walkway. Like these people, all bear watchers should resist this temptation. Consolidating ourselves in predictable places allow Katmai's bears to have more space. NPS/M. Fitz.

In a previous post, I wrote about how we need to give bears space so that they can access the river. At Brooks Falls, where physical separation isn’t an issue, we may need to do even more. In order to allow bears greater access to the area, we ask that everyone avoid lingering on the walkways and consolidate on the viewing platforms. This allows bears the most room to work around us. In a crowded place—like the Falls Platform—our views might be sacrificed a little, but the bears will have more freedom to walk and nurse and court and compete and just be bears.

Brooks Camp, and Katmai National Park in general, is one of the few bear watching destinations where access is largely unrestricted. When you visit, I ask that you consider how your visit can be exceptional and ethical. Sacrificing a little elbow room may be all it takes.

Brooks Camp, bear, bear-human conflict, Brooks Falls, wildlife viewing ethics

9 Comments Comments icon

  1. July 25, 2015 at 10:59

    Thanks, Ranger Mike, for your comment about noise on the platform. Balancing the needs of the bears with the needs of park guests must be incredibly difficult. Thanks to you, and to all of the park staff, for all you do to manage this so incredibly well.

  2. July 23, 2015 at 11:09

    I visited Brooks Camp in early July. A couple of comments about viewing: 1) I saw people bunching up on the boardwalk to watch a bear and actually calling to make it look up. I told them to stop - they glared at me and said why. I explained. A volunteer (brown pants?) was standing right there but refused to get engaged - she seemed to just want to smile and try to nudge people along. 2) A bear was sleeping very close behind the platform. A man came down and wanted to raise the rope to go down and get a better picture. I told him not to - I would get a ranger because it bothered the bear. He did it anyways. I went and got the ranger (green pants) at the covered area. She walked back with me and gave him a very mild scolding (of course he was back on the platform by then). No easy answers. I realize that rangers don't become rangers to police the people, but it really may be one of the most important things they can and should do. Maybe they do need to learn to be pushier. I watched the initial videos, as did everyone else there. But it doesn't sink in, or they ignore. My suggestion (unfortunately) is more assertiveness training for rangers AND volunteers.

  3. July 23, 2015 at 03:04

    If only life had easy answers... I would love the bears to be uninterrupted by us, however people areas are expanding all over the world and will be the dominate force. For animals to survive, it seems that we may have to learn to coexist on some level. The cams and visits, bring some strong advocates for the bears, which is a good thing. Of course, passion can be problematic too, where we want to share their lives too much. Are we keeping away bears completely that might be at the falls without the platforms? Possibly. Would those same bears avoid the large/dominate bear gathering anyway? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe there would be a completely different set of bears at the falls if people were kept out. It seems bears are thriving at Katmai, but does that help a single bear that suffers due to human interference? I don't have any solutions to suggest, other than to keep monitoring the situation and be open to changes if warranted. At least the cams and viewers do help up learn to interpret their behavior a little better so we can possibly notice changes. Thank you so much to the Rangers for all you do for the bears and humans.

  4. July 23, 2015 at 12:03

    @Stacy: Your comment reminded me that I forgot to write about people noise on the platform. If people cheer or applaud (which is not condoned), it is because they are genuinely enthusiastic about what they see. Rangers emphasize the importance of quiet, but people are told so many things when they arrive that it is easy to forget to some things. Cheering for bears is uncommon and it is discouraged because it may disrupt a bear’s behavior. Most of the time, people don’t make too much noise on the wildlife viewing platforms (the racket from airplanes and motor vehicles near the camp area is much louder). Research done over the past 25 years at Brooks River and other bear viewing locations indicates that people impact the behavior of bears, but it is hard, sometimes even for me, to always tell what a bear is reacting to. Park managers have an very difficult task providing for the wants of people with the needs of wildlife. Young bears aren’t the only bears that could be displaced by noise. Some adult bears react to and avoid areas with people as well—and not necessarily because of noise.

  5. July 23, 2015 at 01:34

    Another wonderful post, Ranger Mike.

  6. July 22, 2015 at 05:38

    Thank You for writing this Ranger Mike!! I hope it's made readily available to all the lucky visitors. And, I agree with Tina, monopods are a great idea!

  7. July 22, 2015 at 02:57

    Thank you, Ranger Mike, for a great blog post. As a regular #bearcam viewer on, I frequently wonder how human interactions are affecting the Brooks Camp bears. Like you, I've seen very young, very hungry bears trying to catch fish at the falls, only to be chased away when the crowd on the viewing platform lets out a cheer at something another bear has done. To me, an awed gasp from the crowd is explainable, and likely unavoidable. Gasping is instinctive and uncontrollable. But every time the crowd applauds, I just cringe. That behavior is certainly controllable, and it's clearly disruptive to some of the bears -- especially the youngest and most timid bears, who are already at a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, I worry that the applause reduces the bears to entertainment. The Brooks bears aren't circus acts; they're wild animals, and we have the extraordinary privilege of viewing them in their natural habitat. They don't need our applause; they certainly deserve our respect. Thanks for raising this issue in your blog, and thanks for all that you do to increase our understanding of the bears.

  8. July 22, 2015 at 01:10


  9. July 22, 2015 at 11:39

    It would make visiting so much more comfortable if tripods were banned during crowded times. Monopods have a much lower profile, take up less space and are not a tripping hazard for other viewers. It is frustrating to wait an hour for your chance to be on the falls platform and not get a good spot due to 4 or 5 large tripods on the front row.

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Last updated: July 21, 2015

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