Researchers study webcams to look at human connection with bears

It’s peak bear season at Katmai National Park. That means visitors to Brooks Camp are waiting their turn to get on crowded viewing platforms, while this season over 10 million viewers have watched the action via web-cam.

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Screenshot of the Katmai Bear cam footage (Image courtesy of Explore.org)
Screenshot of the Katmai Bear cam footage (Image courtesy of Explore.org)

These two different ways of interacting with brown bears are the subject of a new study. Researchers are looking at how humans connect with bears, and what that could mean for the future of America’s public lands.

The scene at Brooks Falls is every tourist’s dream of Alaska summer. Salmon hurl themselves at the falls, while a couple huge brown bears wade through the rapids.

This is what Jeffrey Skibins is watching – on Explore.org’s bear cam – from his office at Kansas State University.

“I’m sitting in wonderful sunny Manhattan, Kansas, and my colleague Dr. Sharp is in Katmai right now collecting data from the onsite visitors,” Skibins said. “So, I drew the short straw on that one.”

Skibins is an assistant professor of park management and conservation. He and his colleague Dr. Sharp area interested in how human interest affects wildlife conservation. So when they caught wind of the super-popular Katmai bear cam, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to compare online interest with in-person visitation.

They want to know two main things from both virtual and real-life bear-watchers – one, what kind of emotional connection do these people have with the bears, and TWO, if you do have that emotional connection, what are you willing to do about it?

“Are you willing to take the next step and engage in some sort of pro-conservation behavior? In other words, would you do something to help these bears that you’re watching,” Skibins asked.

Helping the bears, Skibins said, means more than just donating money. It could mean supporting management that’s better for the animals, even if that means, say, limiting people’s access to a park.

So one of his questions is, who is more willing to sacrifice for the bears – armchair tourists, or those toting cameras out on the platforms? I had a thought about this.

“Let me just posit a theory, and you tell me what you think. I’ve been really struck by how the online viewership is constant and fanatical. You see certain viewers interacting like old friends, they know each other, they know the rangers… So my impression is that those people would be more dedicated, because it’s a longer period of time, than just a one-day
visitor.”

“That is an accurate hypothesis,” Skibins said.

He said those are the kinds of things they’re trying to untangle, by surveying both kinds of bear-watchers. And the results, he says, could help parks survive a major challenge – figuring out how to stay relevant in the modern age.

“If you think about, just name two or three national parks off the top of your head. Odds are, one of them was probably the Grand Canyon, one was probably Yellowstone,” Skibins said. “The majority of iconic, traditional go-to parks in the U.S. are out West. So it’s difficult for the majority of the population to access those parks. “

Katmai might be the ultimate example of the inaccessible park – as Skibins pointed out, he could get to Kenya for less airfare than it takes to get to Katmai. What’s out of reach is often out of mind, and if the general public stops caring about federally funded parks, Skibins fears, they could cease to exist.

“And so one of the challenges today is, how do we get national parks to people and people to national parks? This idea of a webcam could be a useful tool as parks emerge in the 21st century,” Skibins said.

The results are still a ways off, but Skibins and Sharp hope their study helps parks give the people the wildlife experience they want – whether it’s on-site or online.

The Katmai bear cams can be viewed at Explore.org