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Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior

Answers to questions commonly asked by wildlife viewers on the topics listed below:
Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior
Viewing from a Vehicle (cont.)

Bears often forage near roads because it’s easier to walk on a road than through dense brush. Also, roadsides receive more sunlight
than bordering forests, promoting growth of succulent herbs and sedges favored by bears, especially in spring while more shaded land
is still unproductive.  Roadsides may also provide a bonanza of road-kill carrion.  The possible presence of carrion makes it doubly
dangerous to approach a roadside bear, especially a grizzly/brown bear.  Watch for carrion birds such as ravens, magpies, gulls or
bald eagles.

If you are not inside a vehicle or other refuge, it’s generally unsafe to watch polar bears or Inland grizzlies from closer than 300 yards –
which is too far for good photos unless you have a very powerful lens.

Even then, don’t venture so far from a refuge that you could not reach it before a grizzly or polar could reach you.  Bears can run 15
yards per second – about twice as fast as an Olympic sprinter. The distance you can safely venture depends on how fast you can run
and how far away you can see bears – not just the ones you are viewing, but any others that might approach. Your safety buffer is
greatest where you have unobstructed visibility of any bear within a few hundred yards.  Don’t focus so tightly on one bear that another
could get close before you see it.  Polar bears are especially adept at ambush

The next safest vantage is an ‘improved’ bear observatory – for instance, an enclosed or semi-enclosed observation hut or an
elevated platform life the one in the above photo or those at Pack Creek on Alaska’s Admiralty Island or at the North American Bear
Center in Minnesota.  Although the typical improved observatory is not bear-proof, it provides sufficient physical and psychological
barriers to keep most bears at bay, or at least to decrease their discomfort at having you so close. Also good would be a site where
you are separated from bears by a gorge or a narrow but powerful river that neither bears nor viewers normally cross.  

Even if risk is minimized at such sites, there may be greater risk hiking to and from the observatory. Although most local bears may
have  learned to trust viewers and expect to occasionally encounter someone on that route, they can still be surprised and frightened
when an encounter does occur.  Worse, newly arrived bears may have no reason to expect close encounters, or to trust anyone that
blunders into them.

Risk is somewhat higher when you are standing or sitting at an ‘unimproved’ observatory – i.e., a natural viewing site which bears can
easily visit, but where they have become acclimated to people.   There are many such sites in coastal Alaska, including McNeil Falls,
Brooks Falls, and Geographic Harbor.  For a map and detailed description of North American viewing sites, read BVA’s book Bear
Viewing in Alaska.
Too close and too personal?  Being this close to brown bears is reasonably
safe on certain areas of the Pacific seacoast, such as McNeil Falls or
Geographic Harbor in Katmai National Park (where this photo and the
following one were made).  But in other areas, especially with Interior
grizzlies, it could be suicidal.  Don’t attempt this unless you are with a certified
bear guide or bear biologist, or have been trained by one. Photos (c) 2003
Kent Fredriksson.
Most victims of serious mauling by a North American grizzly/brown or black bear have been alone or, less commonly in pairs, or
seldom in trios. In cases where a pair was attacked, the victim and companion were typically separated, sometimes as one or both
ran from the bear. By contrast, tightly knit groups of at least 4-6 people have been nearly immune from bear attack. Of the few
hundred people known to have been seriously mauled by a grizzly/brown or black bear over the past century, none was in a tight
group of more than 5 people, and only a few were in a tight group of more than 3 people. Large groups are more intimidating or
confusing to bears; large groups are also less likely than small ones to surprise a bear at close range.  Ideal group size varies with
many factors, but a general rule of thumb is 5-12 viewers, with no more than 8 guests per guide.

At this point, you might well ask:  “If being in a group is all it takes to stay reasonably safe around bears, why are viewers at risk?”
There are several reasons:

1.  Many viewers end up solo or in tiny groups. Either they start off alone; or their groups splinter as each person focuses on his/her
own interests. As one person videos bears, someone else might visit the bushes for a pit stop; a third person might halt to
photograph wild flowers, a fourth person might accidentally wander off watching shore birds, while yet another continues up the
trail. All must now cope with bears on their own.

2.  Even large groups tend to string out in single file as they hike; a bear might see only part of a group and react accordingly.

3.  People do silly things; and Murphy’s Law might well have been discovered while bear viewing. As viewer numbers continue to
skyrocket, more viewing will be done in ever more hazardous areas under ever more risky conditions—as exemplified by the  
exploding numbers of roadside grizzly viewers in Yellowstone National Park, where bears are far less tolerant than on the Pacific

4.  Even if no North American grizzly/brown or black bear has yet attacked a large group of people, bears on other continents have.
There are reputedly cases where a sloth bear in India has attacked large crowds, mauling one person after another and
sometimes killing several victims.  On average, these bears may be fiercer even than grizzlies, despite being smaller than the
average North American black bear.  However, even our own continent might have a few demonic individuals – although this may
be less common in bears than in humans.  We can’t predict where or when a demonic bear might be encountered.  The chance is
tiny; but it isn’t zero.  In any event, I’d never trust group size alone to protect anyone from an angry grizzly or from a polar bear.
Boats can also be bear-safe vehicles.  (Upper)  Drift-boating down the upper Kenai River, near Cooper Landing,
Alaska.  (Lower) On a pontoon boat at Diving Bear Cove, at th mouth of Wolverine Creek, near Alaska’s Cook Inlet.  
Interior grizzlies (e.g., at Yellowstone, left photo, by Hélène van Dijk), are far less tolerant of people than are coastal
brown bears (right hand photo) even at 100-300 yards away!  
Viewing at such close range is feasible
only if the bears are normally well fed
and if they both trust and respect
people.  (Trust = expecting that people
won’t attack without provocation; respect
= expecting that people will retaliate if
provoked.) Although some viewers get
away with pushing the envelope – for
instance watching bears on a moose or
whale carcass from within a few
hundred yards – this is dangerous even
with coastal brownies.
 (c) 2003 Kent
Yellowstone bear jam
(c) 2006 Scott Michae
A tight group is one where everyone is within a few arm-
lengths of at least one other person, and where most of
the group is visible to the bear. Group members at highest
risk are those closest to the bear and farthest from their
companions. If you are even 10 feet from your closest
companion, a bear might perceive you as being alone.

Fortunately, you are also reasonably safe, even among
Interior grizzlies, if you are in a slightly scattered group of
20 or more viewers – as often happens along roads in
Denali, Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks.
Stay together.  From a bear’s
perspective (far right), the
photographer at center might not be
seen as being with the other
viewers, but as solo – making him
fair game if the bear becomes
curious or aggressive.
Cont. >>>
Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
Page  1     2     3     4
Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
Page   1     2     3     4   Study Guide
(c) 2016 S. Stringham