Too close for comfort? Chilkoot bears lure tourists

A bear cub on the Chilkoot River in 2010. (Ray Morris/Flickr Creative Commons)
A bear cub on the Chilkoot River in 2010. (Ray Morris/Flickr Creative Commons)

The brown bears that frequent the Chilkoot River in Haines have continued to garner attention, good and bad, from tourists and locals alike. Authorities and local bear experts agree that human-bear interactions are getting too close for comfort.

Download Audio

“We’re watching pink salmon in the stream, the water level is really low right now and so we can really see the fish really well. And if we look downstream, we can see the bridge going over the river on the Lutak Road and there’s a crowd of people up on that bridge and, oh, yep, I can see there’s a bear coming upstream just below them on the banks.”

Shannon Donahue is the executive director of the Great Bear Foundation and has been working with Chilkoot River bears for five years. She started as a bear monitor for State Parks, but funding for that position was cut. From her time as monitor to her current position, she’s witnessed visitors and locals alike behaving badly.

Earlier this summer, the human-bear issues on the Chilkoot became a national story when a local man dressed in a bear suit was reported for harnessing the bruins on the river. Donahue says she hopes that increased media attention doesn’t lure more looky-loos.

“I think it’s important for us to see the treasures that we have and not take them for granted and respect them and use them to draw people to our area for the right reasons,” she says. “We don’t to be drawing people to the Chilkoot River because they know they can get away with getting close to bear or because they might see a guy running around in a bear costume.”

A crowd starts to gather on a morning earlier this month at the Chilkoot River. (Jillian Rogers)
A crowd starts to gather on a morning earlier this month at the Chilkoot River. (Jillian Rogers)

This summer Donahue spent hours each week on the banks of the Chilkoot studying human bear interactions, how they use the habitat there and how successful they are at catching fish and foraging. Donahue says that the amount of people is high at times, with upwards of 100 people clogging the park road and the riverbanks. Interest in the bears by tourists came to life in 1990s, she says.

The river is frequented by anglers, tourists and photographers. Donahue says she’s interested in exploring whether or not everyone can coexist with the bears.

“You just have a lot of people in different places doing a lot of different things; a lot of wild cards,” says Donahue. “I think a lot of the time people who come here really want to do the right thing but they really just don’t know what to do. People might have an idea of how they want to behave out here but then once they see a bear they just kind of lose their mind and go rushing up to it.”

Shannon Donahue, executive director of the Great Bear Foundation, works on the Chilkoot River earlier this month. (Jillian Rogers)
Shannon Donahue, executive director of the Great Bear Foundation, works on the Chilkoot River earlier this month. (Jillian Rogers)

Donahue estimates that there are about a dozen bears that fish in the river, with more coming through as salmon runs ebb and flow. Last week, Donahue says she had observed three different sows with cubs and another eight or so single bears.

She says in places that are managed specifically for bear viewing, where humans and bears learn how to act around each, human conduct is regulated. Here, however, the regulations are unclear and that can put people and bears at risk.

“The only times I’ve felt at danger here on the Chilkoot have been because of what other people were doing,” she says. “It’s typically been situations where maybe a bear was on the river or in the grassy area between the river and the road, and the bear wound up getting surrounded or its passage was impeded by a lot of people.”

She says some of the bears have gained celebrity status, like Speedy, though Donahue most refers to the bruins by number.

“I feel like when we name bears it starts to complicate our relationship with them and for the survival of these bears is important that we remember that they’re wild animals and that we respect them and that we give them space and we don’t try to give them human attributes,” Donahue says.

“I seen her lips go flat as she woofs because people were within 30 feet of her and that’s a situation where I backed them immediately,” adds Travis Russell.

Russell is the new Alaska State Parks ranger in Haines. He started the job on July 1. Russell says he witnessed  the bear known as Speedy show obvious signs of stress this summer when too many people were too close.

He says he can help educate people when it comes to the bears, but his authority is limited. Also, he says, he’s just one guy and can’t be everywhere at once.

“The role is not clearly defined right now and that is the most frustrating and confusing part for both myself as well as the public,” he says.

He says he can write citations for Fish and Game violations within the park but usually a warning is enough to get people to move.

Pam Randles, the president of the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation says that there are simply too many people for level of management. She says this year was especially bad.

But luckily, Randles says, nothing major has happened yet.

“We all know what the worst case scenario is and that’s a mauling, and if there’s a mauling out there, the bear will be blamed and the bear will be killed and it will solve nothing,” Randles says

Volunteers from the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation spent time this summer helping educate visitors on how to be bear aware. Randles agreed with Donahue in that most visitors aren’t being malicious when it comes to bad bear behavior, they just don’t know any better.

“It’s really pretty simple and straight forward but you’ve got have the people out there that have the knowledge and the time to talk to these folks and explain to them. Because if you do explain to them, those bears will let you sit there and talk pictures by the dozen of you, if you know what to do and what not to do.”

As for locals, Randles says she applauds the majority of Haines residents for being bear savvy.

“Bears aren’t automatically bad guys. People aren’t automatically bad guys. This is something that we can live with them. We are living with them.”

Back out at Chilkoot, Ranger Russell makes his rounds. He says he’s not interested in ruining people’s Alaska adventure.

“I’d rather enhance their experience rather than inhibit it,” Russell says. “With that being said though I am concerned about the resource and you do hear a lot about loving the resource to death or in this case, loving the bears to death quite literally.”