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

Last updated: July 21, 2015

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