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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
Displacement and Crowding

Viewing while on foot
How a bear responds to people depends on both their distance and their behavior.  Avoid sneaking up so close to a bear that, upon
discovering you there, would be distressed and feel intolerably crowded – perhaps causing it to flee or to charge.  This has gotten other
people injured or killed.  It could happen to any of us.  Distressing a bear for more than say 5 minutes, or repeatedly, such that it does
not resume is preceding activity (.e.g, foraging or nursing cubs), or such that you displace the bear from essential habitat (e.g., a
salmon stream or clamming site)  could be considered harassment, which is illegal in Alaska (Statute 16.05.920) and by National Park
Service regulations.  

Once you are within 300 yards of a bear, it's usually best to make sure you are visible to the bear as you continue approaching, so that
you can judge its reactions. The first sign that it is aware of you is typically stopping whatever else it is doing to look toward you,
perhaps by standing upright. It might then approach more closely to investigate you; or it might move farther away.  Even if it stays put,
you are likely crowding the bear if it acts distressed.

At the first
sign of distress, you should quit advancing until it calms down and resumes its original activity, aside from occasional
glances in your direction (e.g., no more than 1 per 5 minutes).  You might then slowly proceed closer, preferably moving at an angle,
rather than directly toward the bear, until it again shows sign of being stress. If, after 5 minutes it is still stressed, retreat slowly until it
calms down; or if necessary leave.  If a bear moves away from you, don't follow it for at least half-an-hour, and then preferably by
detouring wide around its line of travel so that it won't feel pursued if you encounter it again.  Barring that, look for another bear, or
leave.  Bears that learn they can simply walk away from people without being pursued tend to become more trusting of people at closer
distances.  Conversely, pursuit tends to alienate a bear towards people.  

"Guides will be aware that if they continue to approach or crowd a stressed bear, it may show increased signs of distress, move off, or
approach aggressively. In these situations, the guide has missed the early warning signs, disrupted a bear’s normal activity pattern, and
had an impact on the bear, which is counter to the intent of bear viewing. These situations will be avoided at all times."

If you can identify individual bears, you can get a general idea of its tolerances; but keep in mind that tolerances can change
circumstantially.  For example, on windy days or if a bear has been highly disturbed by something, it is likely to be less tolerant toward
viewers.  (See
When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen? for detailed tips on approaching bears and how to behave when they approach
you.)  Once you are as close as you and the bear and comfortable with, try to remain unobtrusive.  With some bears, it may be
necessary to minimize conversation, banging cameras against tripods, etc. as well as quick movements.

"Once a guide has established a group at a respectful location and distance from a bear that does not disturb it, the guide will let
individual bears decide how close they choose to approach the group. In this way, the minimum separation distance between a group
and a bear will largely depend on the comfort of each individual bear."

However, don't allow bears to crowd you.  As gently as possible, teach them to respect human boundaries, for instance staying at least
10 yards away in most situations).  This is particularly important if the bear approaches to assert dominance over a group or exhibits
excessive curiosity about a group or their equipment. Although it may seem cute to have a bear rest or sleep nearby (e.g., within 5
yards), that can increase risk of an accident (e.g., someone knocking over a tripod or tripping) that spooks the bear so much that it
fearfully swats or bites someone to keep that person away.

Allow bear enough time to forage and meet their other needs without human disturbance.  In some cases this can be achieved by
viewing from relatively far away from the bears or from their the micro-habitats that the prefer for certain activities (e.g., marking sites or
refuges for mothers with cubs).  In other cases, you may have to leave the area so that bears alienated to humans can still use the


Being too close to a bear isn't the only way in which your presence can stress it.  You might be too close to a site (e.g., on a salmon
stream) where it wants to forage, or to an animal carcass or other food which it wants to eat. You can solve that conflict by moving
away.   If a bear persists in harassing you, even as you are withdrawing from the site of initial encounter, keep in mind the uncommon
possibility that the bear is trying to drive you out of its territory -- in which case it is likely to be satisfied as long as you keep moving
away from the initial encounter site; it should desist after half-a-mile or so.  In the rare possibility that it is treating you as potential prey,
it is likely to circle around you.  Body language cues for distinguishing mood and temperament are detailed at

Photographic Distances

You might, of course ask: “How close do I need to be in order to get good photos?”  I’d prefer rephrasing that by adding “... get good
photos safely, without disturbing any bears?
” You might agree with that caveat while in the comfort of your own home. But once you are
in the field, actually viewing bears, the lust for ever-closer close-ups could corrupt a saint. The best way to avoid putting yourself at risk
is to prepare before you go into the field. Ask an expert on the area (e.g., a Park naturalist or ranger, or a professional viewing guide)
how close you can safely be to bears at your expected sites; then make sure you have camera lenses powerful enough to do the job. At
some viewing sites, such as Wolverine Creek, McNeil Falls, and Brooks Falls, you can count on being within 10–30 yards of a bear
without risking your safety or the bears’ well-being. At Denali, you should not be within 300 yards. Do your homework and equip yourself
accordingly.  Be sure to bring small lenses too for those moments when bears pass by a few yards away.

Minimum lens power depends on your expected distance range and on how tight a shot you want—perhaps just filling your frame with a
family of bears, or filling it with the head or eye or nostrils of a single bear. For information on how much lens power you need to fill your
frame with objects of any given size at any specified distance,
click here.

When considering which viewing site to visit, ask about its normal lighting conditions. At most viewing areas in Alaska, expect the sky to
be overcast much of the time.  Prosumer and professional digital cameras get good pictures even in bright light with heavy contrast, or
in dim light with minimal contrast. Some lenses from Canon are almost beyond belief for sensitivity and sharpness.  
Viewing while on foot

A bear's behavior can be affected not only by your group of viewers, but other viewers.  The bear may be affected by both the
behavior and the locations of people, especially if they block its access to escape cover.  Although small groups tend to have less
impact than large groups, a large group tends to have less impact than two or more small groups spread out on various sides of the
bear -- forcing it to keep track of what is happening in more directions, and perhaps reducing its options for escape if an enemy

Out of consideration for bears, when I see other viewers arrive, I usually invite them to join my group. Reciprocally, if we arrive at a site
where viewing is already under way, we may try to find a route that brings us up behind the other people as unobtrusively as possible.

Granted, many of us go into the wilderness for solitude — for isolation from other people; we may not want to get chummy with
strangers. Nevertheless, our first concern as viewers should not be our own comfort, but that of the bears. If appropriate, therefore, we
may try to join the other viewers, so long as our arrival would not disturb them or the bruins. Even if other viewers are willing to share
the spot, having too many people together can disturb bears, especially if the people are noisy or move around a lot. (Few of us can
keep still while so excited, and we aren’t always aware of how irritating our chatter can be to wildlife—or to other viewers, especially
those with camcorders who are trying to record natural sounds as well as visuals.)

To minimize any of these problems, my groups tend to hang back for several minutes, assessing the bears and people. If the bears
seem calm and the people signal us forward, in we go. Otherwise, we continue viewing from a greater distance, or look for other bears
to watch.

Although colorful clothing is fine while hiking, to help bears see and avoid you from a safe distance, you might want to remove or cover
such clothing once you are ready to begin viewing. Not only might colorful clothing attract some bears to you or disturb the animals,
but you might show up glaringly in any photo of the bear shot with you in the back-ground.  Few of us appreciate having our photos of
wilderness bears marred by some bystander dressed in blazing red, sunburst yellow, vibrant violet, or flaming orange.  Being quite is
equally important.  Talking, banging equipment, and other unnecessary sound can ruin video footage being shot by your group; and it
can drive bear away or provoke them.  Smoking may also disturb bears or fellow viewers.
 (Photo by Kent Fredriksson.)
Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
Page  1     2     3     4
Ten Golden Rules of Bear Viewing
Page   1     2     3     4   Study Guide

  • Consistently using the same site and trails makes human use more predictable for bears and can help minimize disturbance
    and surprises.

  • The daily timing of bear viewing is dependent on a number of factors including tides, weather, light conditions, the movement
    and activity of bears, and the comfort and motivation of guests. However,
        o      Guides should endeavour to be as predictable as possible in the daily timing of movements to and occupation of
                viewing sites. They should take guests to viewing sites at consistent times of the day and for a consistent length
                of time, as much as possible.

        o      Guides will ensure no bear viewing takes place before first light and after dark.

        o      Guides will minimize bear viewing in very poor visibility such as dim light, during heavy rain or fog, dense vegetation.
Viewing from a boat

  • Guides will continually monitor the location and behaviour of other boats with viewing groups at a site, particularly around a
    bear they are viewing or interested in viewing. Too many boats can easily crowd and eventually displace a bear. The number
    of boats that a bear will tolerate depends on a variety of factors, including its level of habituation to boat traffic, its location in
    relation to food and security cover, and the movement and behaviour of the boats around it. If there are already two boats
    viewing a bear (rafted kayaks considered one boat), guides will carefully consider the additional stress they may cause to the
    bear before deciding to approach to view it.

  • Guides viewing a bear will rotate with waiting boats at an approximate interval of 30 minutes.

  • When approaching and leaving a viewing opportunity, boats will depart the scene in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible,
    given the vagaries of wind, tide, current and vessel load.  Speed and wake should be minimized so that any other boats in the
    vicinity are not rocked, which could spoil photo opportunities for their passengers.

  • Coordination, communication and respect for each other's viewing opportunity will be paramount.
Tom Mangelsen and others
Melissa Groo
For more advanced guiding and viewing techniques, consult rest of this website and BVA's books and videos.
Some other opinions on best viewing practices from premier nature photographers can be read at:
Relations With People Who Aren't Viewing Bears

In some cases, viewers have to cooperate with other people using the same areas for other purposes -- e.g., viewing other wildlife,
or fishing, miking or camping.  We also need to be able to get along with them, lest our guests end up in the middle of an argument
that they want no part of.  This can be difficult if the other people are disturbing bears or otherwise disrupting viewing opportunities.  
Those may be occasions to try diplomatically educating the other people about the adverse effects of their activities. But done
incorrectly, that attempt can backfire by increasing disturbance to bears and disruption of viewing.
Conserve Viewing Opportunities

People watch bears for a variety of reasons.  Some simply enjoy watching bruins and learning about their natural history, behavior,
and ecology. Others want to photograph bears – which provides a means for people worldwide to vicariously share the viewing
experience of these lucky few.  People also seek viewing encounters to experience a sense of acceptance by the animals, spiritual
kinship with them, and/or the thrill of skirting danger. Each of those goals is legitimate to the extent that it can be achieved with
minimal risk to people and with minimal impact on the bears or their habitat.

We who enjoy viewing bears or who make our living helping others view bears, are responsible for conserving these opportunities for
the people who come after us, be it on the same day or in a future generation. This requires limiting impacts on viewable bears by
ourselves and by other people — including impacts such as disturbance, habitat loss, and death.  To minimize impacts, viewing
should be done in the following ways:
  • Do not degrade the "health" of individual bears or of the population.

  • Neutralize the net effect of viewing. Bears should ignore the presence of humans and continue to feed and carry on other
    natural behavior at the viewing sites.  Bears should not become so curious about people or so bold or aggressive that they
    approach dangerously close or injure anyone.

  • Bears should not flee from people or avoid prime habitat (e.g., fishing sites or berry patches) near people.  Viewing should not
    deprive bears of a significant proportion of the food they would have otherwise obtained at the viewing site.

  • Viewing should not
  • alter bear feeding patterns (e.g., sites on a stream, times of day),
  • impair feeding success, or
  • disrupt or distract bears engaged in other activities (e.g., maternal care, mating, predator defense).

  • Viewers should not intrude into a refuge that sows use to isolate and protect their cubs.  Mothers with infants sometimes need
    extra security from other bears or wolves.  Black bear mothers easily climb trees with their cubs. Brown bear mothers, especially
    those living in habitat without large trees, have fewer refuge options.  Among the best may be cliff ledges where an enemy
    would have difficulty reaching cubs.  Where cub refuges are scarce, they should be off-limits to people, lest intruders disturb
    the mother-cub families and drive them away.  This is most important during the mating season and for the next month – a
    period when adult males may be especially likely to kill cubs.

  • Do not disturb bed sites, wallows, rubbing trees and boulders, other marking sites, or trails leading to them.

  • Leave the viewing area in good shape for the next users.  Practice good personal hygiene by not smoking and properly
    disposing of items such as bodily waste and toilet paper.  

  • Although bear viewing is often referred to as a ‘non-consumptive use,’ every human visit to bear country has an impact on
    bears and their habitat.  Some bears are seen by multiple viewers, causing potentially cumulative stress.

  • Adjust thresholds for tolerable impacts by bear viewing to compensate for variation in impacts from other sources – e.g.,  
    tolerance for viewers might be lowest when salmon are scarcest or during heavy winds.

  • Recognize that animals other than bears, and plant life, deserve your courtesy and stewardship.

  • Keep in mind the "take home" messages that viewers leave with so that they and anyone they influence will be more likely to
    view safely and conservatively in the future.

  • Viewers and guides can serve as valuable sources of information to one another and to management agencies on the status
    and behavior of bears, especially about bear-human and bear-bear interactions.

Viewers and viewing guides need to help conserve the wilds that they enjoy.  Preserving the “goose that lays golden eggs” of income
and enjoyment from bears necessitates maintaining their populations in robust health — assuring not only that we have enough bears
to watch or hunt, but enough to fulfill their ecological roles. To live in reasonable harmony with these animals, we must relax any goal
of ruling them — of subordinating all of their needs to our own whims and pleasures. We must restrain our impacts, our greed, our
fear, and our aggressiveness, and replace those attitudes with a commitment to "live and let live." We have to tread lightly and
respectfully — forcibly imposing our will only where absolutely essential for protecting ourselves and valuable possessions.
Viewing from a boat
close to shore may displace nearby bears.

  • All operators will minimize boat speed in the vicinity of an estuary or river mouth.

  • Boats will strive to approach a bear slowly, at an oblique angle to the shore where the bear has been located (i.e., not directly).

  • Boats will decelerate well before the noise or wake of the boat disturbs bears or other wildlife (e.g., 200 metres or more
    depending on the size of boat, weather, behaviour of the bear, etc.).

  • Assess the appropriate viewing distance for the particular circumstance based on:
   o        the movement, activity and behaviour of the bear,
   o        other boats and the number of viewing groups already in the vicinity
   o        wind direction
   o        depth of water and nature of tides or currents
  • Where wind, tide and vessel load permit, guides may opt to propel under oar when optimizing positioning around a bear,
    particularly when other boats are in the vicinity.

  • At no time will a boat approach a bear closer than 5 metres. However, there may be instances when a boat is stationary or
    drifting silently and a bear’s movement brings it to a distance closer than 5 metres. All guides will be mindful of maintaining an
    adequate depth of water beneath the boat to avoid being beached.
(c) 2016 S. Stringham