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The Challenges of Managing Bears and People at Brooks Camp

from Ranger Mike:

July 1, 2014 was a stressful day for rangers and one yearling cub at Brooks Camp. Around 10 AM bear #402 became separated from her cub near the mouth of the Brooks River. The yearling walked and ran to Brooks Lodge and climbed a tree just outside of the lodge. The cub was not reunited with its mother until 8:15 PM.

Several rangers and I had the fortune (or misfortune after several hours) of watching the cub in the tree. The cub was so close to the buildings at Brooks Lodge that people could not use the lodge bathhouse or access several cabins. The cub was less than 50 yards from the back door of the lodge kitchen and dining hall.

What happened? Where was the cub’s mother? Bear 402 and her yearling cub were at the mouth of the Brooks River fishing around 10 AM. The yearling cub swam across the river as 402 fished downstream. 402 lost track of the cub and did not know where it was. The cub didn’t seem to know where its mother was either. 402 began searching for the cub on the opposite side of the river. Shortly after the family was separated, 402 disappeared into the forest at the mouth of the Brooks River. By this time, the yearling cub had wandering to Brooks Lodge and climbed a tree. With 402 nowhere in sight and her cub treed in camp, rangers were in a bit of jam.

Contrary to popular belief brown bears can climb trees. I have seen cubs and adult bears do it. Brown bears are not likely to climb trees when threatened, but they can and sometimes do. When a bear climbs a tree, it won’t climb down until it no longer feels threatened. With a few hundred people moving by Brooks Lodge, the cub was likely not coming down anytime soon.

Bears have climbed trees at Brooks Lodge before, but those situations are usually short in duration. Typically, rangers have to keep people away from the bear and it will climb down and depart in short order. Having a lone cub treed in camp with no mother to be found was unprecedented. Our initial hope was that 402 would catch the cub’s scent and track it into camp. Mother bears will call their cubs down out of trees with a huff. This time, 402 was missing in action.

As you can see in the photos, the cub was very high in the tree. We knew it was stressed. There is no way to get it out of the tree. It had to come down on its own. However, people still want to walk around the lodge and they still want to eat lunch. Brooks Lodge staff still has to meet airplanes on the beach only 100 yards (91 m) away and move luggage to the lodge with a vehicle less than 50 yards (46 m) from the treed cub. Unfortunately, it was not feasible to shut the camp down for the cub. All the noise and people likely kept the cub in the tree—for hours.

Around 5:30 PM, the cub decided to climb down the tree. Rangers instructed people to enter buildings, stay out of the cub’s line of sight, and give it space to go on it’s way. Any noise could startle the cub and cause it climb to the tree again. Spreading that message is hard though. As the cub got to the base of the tree, a plane started its engine and spooked the cub. It climbed back up the tree and stayed there. Remember, the cub climbed the tree around 10 AM.

Around 6 PM, the cub climbed down the tree again. This time it was not startled by people or engines and left the lodge area on it’s own. Its mother was still nowhere to be found. The cub walked along the beach away from the lodge and toward the campground. Perhaps uncomfortable without its mother, it soon returned to the lodge and climbed a tree.

I felt sympathy for the cub, but I was frustrated by the situation.There was essentially nothing we could do to coax the cub down and away from the buildings. This was clearly a place where it felt some comfort and safety. Otherwise it would not have returned. We couldn’t do anything more than watch and wait.

Finally around 8 PM, the cub came out of the tree. 402 whereabouts were still unknown. Several rangers worked hard to keep people inside of buildings. No planes were on the beach and the cub had free reign. Still, it was alone. It wanted its mother. It tried to return to the lodge, but eventually left that area and walked back to the river.

Shortly after it reached the river it began to bawl. Cubs bawl when they are hungry or otherwise trying to get mother’s attention. This was something it rarely did in the tree. The bawling clearly got the attention of one bear that swam across the river towards it. When I heard that another bear was approaching the cub, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The other bear could ignore it, kill it, or scare it back to the lodge.

To my amazement, the bear that was approaching the cub was 402, its mother. She must have been near the mouth of the river and heard the cub’s bawling. After 10 hours of separation, they were finally back together. The family was last seen moving upriver into the forest.

This was a happy ending for the family, but it highlights the challenges of managing people and bears at Brooks Camp. The facilities at Brooks Camp—lodge, employee housing, and visitor center—are located in perfect bear habitat. It is difficult to reconcile the different needs of people and bears. The situation may have resolved itself sooner if we were not around. At minimum, the bear would have been able to move freely without our interference.

But, Brooks Camp is a place for people too. A cub in a tree near the lodge is not a simple matter to deal with and the camp can’t shut down for the sake of the cub. When you watch the cams, think about our relationship with the animals as well as how a park should be used and managed. Parks are for people and well as wildlife and ecosystems. For generations, people have been debating how to balance the needs of people and animals. In a place like Brooks Camp, the needs of people and wildlife are bared for all to see.

I won’t have time to respond to comments to this post now, but I am curious to know what everyone thinks about our relationship with wildlife like bears. How do you provide for the needs of people at a place like Brooks Camp and give bears the space they need to survive?

(Watch the video highlight of 402 being reunited with her cub here.)

19 Comments

  1. Carl Ramm

    Great news! It was hard to leave Brooks with the cub still up in the tree. Thanks to you and the other rangers for your perseverence and skill in dealing with situation.

  2. SoCalif

    Thanks for this post regarding yesterday’s events. Tough calls yesterday but fortunately a positive conclusion. Difficult to balance the desires of everyone. But I’m biased toward giving the wildlife (including lost cubs and stressed mothers) wider berth and accommodation. I guess if you’re investing a bit to travel and lodge there you’d want a great experience – but animals have fewer options.

  3. grdwyer

    In this situation, I believe that the cub deserved all of the chances available to it to return to its mother. Fortunately, this had a happy ending. But isn’t policy in place that bears ALWAYS have the right of way in Katmai? If this is correct, then problem solved. Everything in the area should stop to allow the cub and mother to reunite. It is their home, not ours. IMHO.

  4. saunie

    A little inconvenience for the successful return of the cub to it’s mother is a small price to pay. I applaud all who felt it was worth the time to let the bear figure out where to go and how to find mama.
    Respect wildlife!

  5. Jolanta Wardach

    but I was moved, thanks for the good ending.

  6. Carl Ramm

    I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that absolutely nobody there at the time had any idea how long the cub was going to be in the tree, or if or when 402 might return. Even if the plane traffic had been shut down it is quite possible that all the people milling about camp would have spooked the cub just as easily, and by the time the people weren’t milling around much the planes weren’t flying either. In theory the camp could have been cleared out, but where would everybody go? Neither the beach nor the platforms were practical options, especially since for all anyone knew the cub could have stayed in the tree or around camp overnight. Again, no one knew how long this would go on, no matter how hindsight might make it seem. My sense while at Brooks for the first part of this was, and remains, that Ranger Mike and the others were doing their best in a situation in which a perfect solution was impossible.

    Regarding the deeper issues involved in apparent conflicts between bears and humans, my sentiments usually run with the bears. Then again, while dichotomies like bears vs. humans have some use in fairly abstract philosophical discussions, in practical terms things are seldom so simple. I think that what happened here is a good example of this.

    Above all, though, I’m happy that mom and cub are back together. I had gotten very attached to that cub over the prior week, and this is a great relief.

  7. Gillian

    Sounds to me like everything that could be done was. I’m all for the wildlife but in reality it is the people visiting that keep such wonderful places going as well.

    Unfortunately when you travel you have deadlines to meet with planes,etc so bringing everything to a dead stop may have meant some people couldn’t arrive & would miss out on the wonderful opportunity of seeing Brooks first hand. And with so much advance planning needed to visit I know I would be conflicted if I missed out. On one hand I’d know I’d help save a bear but on the other I’d miss out of actually seeing the bears.

    It certainly sounds like a balancing act for you rangers but to me it sounds like you’re doing a wonder job so keep up the good work.

    • grdwyer

      Sorry, but if the bears were not there, there would be no people going there to visit. I am not trying to start anything, it just seems to me, that man gets involved with nature, and the next thing is that man finds a way to screw up what has been there for thousands of years. And then find a way to blame the wildlife. All of this is MHO. Thanks.

  8. tigerliz

    Thankyou so much for posting and i am relieved that this was a happy outcome for everyone concerned. It is such a marvellous thing that you do all of you rangers and webcam operators. It opens the world to so many. Deep Gratitude.

  9. dorasmother

    Thank you for this information. I am grateful that I did not know about the separation until shortly before it ended. As it was, it was a tense hour or so for everyone viewing.
    As for the challenges I can say from the prospective of a viewer that the bears get top priority. The visitors come second and if they have to deal with delays and problems like this one, well, that is what they signed up for when they booked this very exotic (yes, exotic) adventure.
    That being said, if I was a visitor and could not move or get to the bathroom when I needed to I would be miserable. Added to that people who need medications etc.
    Challenges indeed.
    It just makes me appreciate the work you do even more. It is not just preserving and protecting, it is dealing with the public which can be very rewarding and very difficult.
    I guess that is why rangers are paid such big bucks:)

  10. Cathy Mathes

    So happy for a good outcome. Having visited Brooks two years ago I know it for the special place that it is. A person has to make an effort to get there and it’s not cheap. If you’re fortunate enough to arrive at the right time you will have the experience of a lifetime. That being said, we understood within one minute at the required “Bear School” that we were in the bear’s home and to get out of their way. If the bears were on the path you didn’t go there. If they were on the bridge to the viewing area then the bridge was closed. I was yelled at several times by rangers for not keeping appropriate distance and I thank them for it. I can understand the dilemma of staff because the place is remote …..you can only get there by floatplane or boat,has limited facilities, and visitors are on tight schedules to get in and out. If there is anything to learn from this experience the good people in Katmai will learn it. I left there with memories and photos of a lifetime. The park service and staff there are awesome and are dedicated to peaceful coexistence of humans and wildlife.

  11. Fran Bettencourt

    I left my comment on the cam side, also. I know you rangers have done a great job and there have been lots of happy moments along with it’s sad ones. I hope the people that visit Brooks has a full understanding of what you are trying to do. The bears should be first and foremost in consideration. Are there any statistics of fishermen vs. bear watchers? I think I remember this becoming a fishing lodge to begin with but when the park took over that’s when wildlife should and always come first. I know us cam watchers love our armchair visits and really appreciate all that has been given us. Please keep up your wonderful work and hope all is well. That was quite an experience for mom(402), cub, visitors and especially you rangers. I was so happy that they did get united and I know everyone else was also. Thanks You for keeping us updated on things like this even if it breaks our hearts sometimes. Sincere Thanks

  12. San Diego Grandma

    Close all the national parks. Let nature recover. People do nothing to add to the beauty and just litter and disturb.

  13. hrpuffinstuff

    I have always loved wild life and our natural resources. I think continued education of the general public is still the best route to future conservation efforts. Before I visited Brooks (before the live web cams were available!) i did not have much understanding of bears and the need to respect/protect them. Because of that experience I have become informed and a true advocate for the brown bears and the need to protect their way of life, while responsibly enjoying them. I believe if we closed national parks and viewing locations, our future generations would no longer feel a sense of partnership/responsibility toward our natural resources. There will always be the irresponsible few how make mistakes and end up in the news but there are so many more folks who want to admire and share in the lives of these wonderful creatures.

  14. Robin Ryerse Barber

    Since you built the camp for people, knowing it was Bear country, the camp should have to come to a screeching halt when something like this happens. The Bear’s welfare should always come first.

    • Anne

      There were not many bears around Brooks Camp when it was built in 1950. The bears started coming in years later after the native fish camp was gone.

  15. Carl Ramm

    I think we have to be very careful about letting the search for a perfect solution become a danger to a good, working solution. I also think we have to be very, very careful in our assumptions about apparent bear/human conflicts. Sometimes they are obvious, but often (in my observation anyway) they only seem obvious. For example–I trust Ranger Mike will correct me if I’m mistaken–it is my understanding from conversations with rangers at Brooks that many of the bears, including some of the dominant males, are hesitant to enter camp because of the human presence. It is not hard to envision ways in which this could have worked to the cub’s safety, esp. if 402 had not been nearby when he came down. Is it impossible that the cub wasn’t in some sense aware of this, since this was the second time in a week s/he had gone a considerable distance to climb a tree in camp?

    With all those eyes on them while at Brooks, those bears are far, far safer from poaching, Defense-of-Life-and-Property shootings, etc. than they are anywhere else on the Alaska Peninsula. Outside the borders of Katmai (and esp. Brooks Camp), this is not a bear-friendly place. Just read the AK Dept. of Fish and Game harvest reports and DLP shooting data, not to mention their comments on the prevalence of poaching here.

    Lastly, the worldwide popularity of the Brooks provides a relative security of funding that doesn’t exist for lesser known parks and refuges. Whether we like it or not, that’s the political reality. That funding provides for law enforcement patrols, etc. No one watching over the bears of Brooks, no bears. That is the reality.

  16. Kelle Kampa

    I was at Brooks Lodge when this happened!! (My mom, dad, and I are in the photo of the bear in the tree!) I’m so relieved that lil baby bear got reunited with its mom. Keep up the great work, y’all!

  17. salsabike

    Yep, I too would say bears first, people second. We are in their home.