By Bill Sherwonit
It’s hard to say which is the more mind-blowing experience: to step, in mid-July, upon the grassy knoll that gives visitors their first stunning glimpse of McNeil Falls and the ursine spectacle that accompanies it, dozens of brown bears fishing for salmon along a few hundred yards of cascading river; or to be standing upon one of the two narrow gravel pads provided for people (everywhere else being devoted to the bears), attention focused on the river and what’s happening there, and have a thousand-pound male slowly saunter past, no more than 15 feet away, and neither human nor bear are troubled by the other’s presence. Though the bear seems pretty darn blasé that a person stands nearby, the human — if he or she is anything like me — is filled with some mix of excitement, joy, and just a bit of nervousness. But more than anything, the visitor feels amazement.
So it goes for much of the summer at Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. Every day, people are amazed by bears, for any number of reasons. And by the end of their stay, many—I’d guess the great majority—of those visitors have had a life-changing experience. They now think and feel differently about bears. Even those who are already advocates for bears, or manage them in other places, gain new insights. People leave with a greater appreciation for brown bears (the coastal cousins of grizzlies). And, if they’ve been paying attention, they understand that bears are much more complex creatures—and far less inherently dangerous—than our mainstream American culture normally gives them credit for being.
Meanwhile, the bears, by all indications, calmly accept the presence of people in their midst while going about their ursine lives, their attention largely focused on food and each other. Along the way, the bears, too, learn something important: that people—at least those they meet at the McNeil River sanctuary—are not a danger, nor a source of food.
Nowhere is the bears’ acceptance of a human presence better displayed than at McNeil Falls, a cascading stairstep mix of whitewater rapids and calmer pools, where bears fish for the chum salmon that spawn in the river. Every day during the peak of that chum return—which generally runs from early July into early August—10 visitors, plus sanctuary staff spend seven to eight hours at the falls, while stationed at two small gravel pads, one atop a meadow bench, the other right below it. All around them, bears move in and out. The more tolerant ones will eat salmon, take naps, and nurse cubs within a short distance of the visiting humans.
This is one of the miracles of McNeil, something that continues to impress long-time manager Larry Aumiller, who ran the sanctuary’s visitor program for 30 years and since his retirement in 2006 has returned most summers to help out.
“Think about it,” Aumiller says. “You’ve got this group of 11 or 12 people standing in the middle of 40, 50, 60 bears. You’re very close to where they want to be. And they tolerate you.”
The high degree of acceptance shown by McNeil’s bears may be the sanctuary’s—and Aumiller’s—greatest legacy. More than anyone else, he demonstrated that bears can become habituated to people without also becoming “food conditioned,” that is learning to associate people with food. And he’s shown that such people-tolerant bears—Aumiller calls them “neutrally habituated”—are safe to be around.
“At McNeil, humans are neither a threat nor a source of food,” he said. “Over time it became clear from their actions that the more tolerant bears were perceiving us as neutral objects, maybe as innocuous as a rock or a tree.”
Anyone who doubts Aumiller’s conclusions should consider this: since the visitor permit program was started in 1976, bears inside the sanctuary haven’t injured a single person; and no bears have had to be killed in defense of visitors or staff.
Before the McNeil “experiment,” most people—including many bear experts—believed that habituated bears, particularly brown/grizzly bears, are extremely dangerous. McNeil proved the opposite is true — if food is removed from the equation. For that reason, all human food is stored and meals are prepared and eaten in a sturdy cabin that’s off limits to bears. Other keys to McNeil River’s success: Visitor numbers are restricted and human activities are kept as predictable as possible. As a general rule, people aren’t allowed to wander outside the well-defined campground area without being accompanied by sanctuary staff.
Located on the upper Alaska Peninsula about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary was established in 1967 by the Alaska Legislature. From the start, its chief mandate has been to provide the world’s largest gathering of brown bears’ “permanent protection.” An adjacent refuge was added in 1993 to afford the bears additional protections; in both places, no hunting of brown bears is allowed.
That McNeil River is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is among the more remarkable things about this place, given its other priorities. The same agency that conducts widespread predator-control programs has recognized McNeil River’s great value as a bear preserve and at times its leaders have even declared the sanctuary the “crown jewel” of its wildlife-management programs, an extraordinary validation.
That it has proved to be a jewel is largely due to the efforts of a few key individuals.
Early on, then-sanctuary manager Jim Faro made it his mission to limit human access. A permit system restricting visitor numbers and regulating their behavior went into effect in 1973, largely because of Faro’s tireless advocacy. Faro insisted that “the bears come first” at McNeil River, a mantra and philosophy that continues to this day and is the heart of the sanctuary’s success, making it the gold standard by which all other bear-viewing locales and programs are measured.
The word “unique” is often misused. But having had the good fortune to visit McNeil River several times and also travel to Alaska’s other prime bear-viewing areas, I feel confident saying that the sanctuary’s gathering of bears, and its management, are just that. One reason is the number of bears. Scores of bears annually congregate at the sanctuary, drawn by the concentrated and highly nutritious food source that salmon present. As many as 144 individual bears (adults and cubs) have been identified at McNeil River in a single season. And in July 2011, biologists counted a remarkable 80 bears at one time. (While McNeil Falls has long been the sanctuary’s primary attraction, since the mid-1980s a neighboring stream, Mikfik Creek, has drawn bears to a June run of sockeye salmon. That prompted the state to expand the bear-viewing season, which now runs from early June through late August. Bears are more scattered along Mikfik, offering a different experience than the falls. I’ve been to both and highly recommend either one.)
But as already suggested, it’s more than simply a numbers game. McNeil is the best place in the world to safely watch “bears being bears,” often in stunningly intimate proximity. Besides having thousand-pound males amble nearby, I’ve stood spellbound while an adult female bear trailed by two tiny cubs slowly walked within a few feet of me and 10 other people, our backs pressed tightly against a rock wall along the edges of McNeil Lagoon. Though the cubs eyed us intently, not once during the family’s passage did the mom show any evidence of concern. Just as she had learned that people were not a threat, she was now teaching her cubs a similar lesson.
For more than half a century, thousands of other people have had similar experiences.
The “McNeil experience” legacy begun by Jim Faro and refined by Larry Aumiller across his three decades is now in the capable hands of Tom Griffin, whose upcoming season will be his twentieth at McNeil River, the last ten as its manager.
“The key,” Griffin says, “is consistency. McNeil has been successful for so long because over the years we’ve given the bears a consistent message, and a big part of that is being polite, respectful visitors in their home. By making ourselves as predictable and non-threatening as possible, we make it easier on the bears. It’s almost like we’re not there.”
Neither Griffin nor Aumiller would argue that living with bears is an easy thing. But McNeil is proof of what’s possible when humans are willing to compromise: people and bears can indeed peacefully coexist, often in close company. “What goes on here is still news to a lot of people,” Aumiller says. “They don’t think it can happen. But it does. McNeil shows that if you learn about something that’s different from you, and begin to appreciate it, then you’ll figure out a way to keep it in your life. You’ll learn to co-exist.”
There are many reasons to celebrate McNeil River. Among the greatest is this: across more than five decades, the sanctuary’s bears and visitor program have helped to educate thousands of people and change our perspectives about bears, while showing us, first-hand, what amazing and complex creatures bears are—and non-threatening, when we humans behave in respectful and predictable ways. I’ve long wished that we humans could be as tolerant and accepting of bears, as they are of us.
Despite the widespread acclaim and unrivaled nature of both McNeil River’s gathering of bears and its visitor program, over the years the sanctuary has faced a series of conflicts that have threatened to compromise its very reason for being.
From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, commercial fishing programs raised concerns, even alarm. For a short while, commercial fishermen were actually allowed to harvest sockeyes within the sanctuary’s Mikfik Creek, despite obvious conflicts with bears. About the same time, a state-backed fisheries-enhancement program was begun on the Paint River, about a mile north of the sanctuary.
Starting in 1986, hatchery-raised sockeyes were annually stocked in the Paint River for several years; and in 1991, a fish ladder was constructed to help returning salmon reach spawning grounds. Sanctuary staff understandably worried that a new salmon run so close to McNeil would draw bears away, thus diminishing the viewing program. Even more troubling was that the Paint River project could lure McNeil’s human-habituated bears into an area open to brown bear hunting.
Fortunately, the project proved a bust, and it led to a positive spin-off. In response to a lawsuit filed by the group Friends of McNeil River over the Paint River fiasco, the Alaska Legislature agreed to a “compromise” that led to the creation of McNeil River State Game Refuge, which in 1995 was closed to bear-hunting.
More than a decade later, in 2005, the Alaska Board of Game (BOG) made the highly controversial—and in many people’s eyes, unethical—decision to repeal a brown bear hunting closure within the state-managed Kamishak Special Use Area, adjacent to the sanctuary. It did so against the advice of Fish and Game officials and overwhelming public testimony opposed to the proposed hunt. Because “McNeil bears” are known to seasonally inhabit Kamishak, the board’s decision again raised the specter of hunters killing human-habituated bears.
The BOG’s decision was so outrageous and so unpopular, it provoked a firestorm of public and scientific protest. The board unanimously reversed its decision before the new hunt began—but not before Aumiller retired. In a commentary, he explained, “Through every single interaction for over 30 years, we have done everything humanly possible to get bears to accept our benign presence. And guess what? It has worked incredibly well. Because we have cultivated their confidence, we have more responsibility to protect them.
“To purposely and knowingly kill these habituated animals for trophies is beyond any definition of reasonable ethics or fair chase and, I believe, is morally wrong. I’ve always envisioned that I’d be at McNeil River until I couldn’t physically do it anymore. But I can’t continue to remove the bears’ only protection—their natural wariness—knowing that even more of them will soon be exposed to hunting.”
Nine years after Aumiller’s retirement, high-ranking Fish and Game officials demonstrated that threats can come from within the very agency charged with protecting McNeil River bears. In 2014, under Gov. Sean Parnell, the state began a process to water down management plans for 17 “special areas,” by diminishing and/or eliminating existing protections in order to “streamline” the public-permitting process. Among them: McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge. All of this was being done behind closed doors, without any public input, and on an accelerated timetable.
Though opposition to this audacious—and again, to many Alaskans, unethical—plan quickly grew once discovered, what really stopped it was Bill Walker’s defeat of Sean Parnell in the 2014 governor’s race.
So far, McNeil River has survived every threat that’s arisen and all indications suggest both its bears and visitor program are thriving. After visiting the sanctuary last summer, I can confirm that the “McNeil experience” is as marvelous as ever.
But now another threat looms. And this one appears more ominous than any that’s come before, by far: the Pebble Project.
Much has already been reported about the proposed Pebble mine and the dangers it would pose to Bristol Bay’s legendary sockeye salmon runs, fish-based economy, and salmon-centric subsistence lifestyles. Here I will focus on the newest Pebble twist and the threat it poses to McNeil River sanctuary and its bears—a danger that’s been largely overshadowed by Bristol Bay concerns.
When the Pebble Partnership announced its “newly proposed mine plan” in 2018, it revealed a major change in how and where it would move ore concentrate from the mine to the shores of Cook Inlet for shipment outside Alaska. This revised transportation plan was an integral part of its permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The originally proposed road corridor had swung north of Iliamna Lake, partly following an established route to a coastal locale called Williamsport. For various reasons—a Pebble spokesperson emphasizes challenging terrain, but others say that difficult negotiations with landowners, particularly Native groups opposed to the mine, proved problematic—project leaders sought other avenues.
In the end, the partnership looked south and chose a route that would traverse Iliamna Lake (the ore to be ferried across) and then follow a road corridor to a place called Amakdedori beach. Much of the proposed corridor, plus the port site, would be on state-owned lands.
From the perspective of McNeil River’s staff—and the region’s brown bears—this was the worst possible place to put the corridor and port (of all the locales it could legally be placed).
Here’s the problem: several miles of this newly proposed road, along with an associated gas line and the port, lie within 10 to 15 miles of the famed river where dozens of brown bears gather each year.
Such an industrial zone is far too close to this protected congregation of brown bears and would present several risks to both McNeil’s bear-viewing program and, more importantly, to the brown bears that spend time at McNeil and others that travel up and down the coast.
For starters, the proposed road and port would place a deep industrial gash through the heart of an important—some might say critical—brown bear travel corridor, in an area that has one of the world’s highest concentrations of Ursus arctos. This corridor is used by large numbers of bears as they move along the wilderness coast of western Cook Inlet in search of food and, in early summer, mating partners.
McNeil is a key stop for dozens of those bears, but there are several other places where bears gather, both north and south of Amakdedori beach. Not only would the proposed industrial zone disrupt their movements, but based on what’s been learned from other industrialized areas, it would inevitably lead to substantial bear-human conflicts and result in food-conditioned bears. And as our state’s Department of Fish and Game has firmly and repeatedly warned Alaskans, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
Some number of bears would be killed, either because they get into human food and garbage and thus become so-called “problem bears,” or simply because workers misinterpret their behavior and kill them “in defense of life and property.” In any case, the bears would become direct casualties of this new transportation/port corridor and the people working within it.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Several people who’ve worked at McNeil River warn of the dangers, including Drew Hamilton, who served six years as the sanctuary’s assistant manager and is now a bear-viewing guide and president of the group Friends of McNeil River; and longtime manager Larry Aumiller, who knows that coastal region, and its bears, as well as anyone. They (and others) have no doubt that the road and port would be harmful to both the bears and the bear-human relationships that are key to McNeil’s success. To Aumiller, the greatest concerns are the displacement and human kill of bears, especially habituated ones.
McNeil’s visitor program would inevitably be compromised and diminished by the presence of a nearby industrial zone where bears are “taught” lessons that contradict what they learn at McNeil River. Again I’ll emphasize that one of the keys to McNeil’s success has been the strict management of human behavior, so that people behave in a predictable and respectful way. As Aumiller puts it, “Nowhere else in Alaska (or the world, I might add) do that many bears have this sort of highly developed relationship with humans. The humans trust the bears and the bears trust the humans. . . .”
Bears that have to negotiate an industrial zone where the rules are very different will get mixed messages that make the McNeil mission much more difficult. If the new corridor and port were allowed, you can be sure that food-conditioned bears would eventually show up at McNeil River, endangering not only the visitor program but also people’s lives. And the lives of bears, as well.
All of this is unacceptable.
For all of these reasons—and others, including economic ones made by bear-viewing companies—the proposed new road corridor and Amakdedori port is an awful choice, an industrial zone in one of the worst places imaginable.
All of these concerns, and more, were presented to the Army Corps of Engineers during its 2018 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) “scoping period,” during which the public and government agencies were invited to identify issues relevant to the proposed Pebble Project.
Yet when the Corps released its draft EIS in February, those who waded through that thick and hard-to-negotiate document discovered the agency had almost entirely ignored the concerns and warnings expressed by bear biologists and wildlife managers, including those who know McNeil River best. It also largely dismisses the concerns of current state Fish and Game (F&G) staff. As a “cooperating agency,” F&G provided pages and pages of comments, concerns, and proposed resolutions while the Corps was developing its draft EIS.
The Corps’ response to F&G’s detailed feedback was routinely short and succinct: either 1) information requested by F&G “would not be essential to make a reasoned choice of alternatives” (how the Corps concluded that is a mystery) and thus isn’t in the draft EIS; 2) impacts defined by F&G will eventually appear in a “Wildlife Management Plan” (a plan that we Alaskans are being asked to take on faith, despite the Corps’ woefully inadequate performance to date); or 3) the kicker of them all, “McNeil River State Game Refuge and Sanctuary are outside the EIS analysis area.”
And how convenient is that?
It’s worth noting that in considering Pebble’s likely impacts to recreation, the Corps settled on an area that extends for many hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles. Yet for the transportation corridor and port site’s impacts to “wildlife values”—which naturally include brown bears—the Corps chose a three-mile radius.
Again, how convenient, especially considering that research has demonstrated Alaska Peninsula brown bears may wander many tens of miles during their seasonal search for food. In fact bears that annually gather at McNeil River have occasionally been identified far to the south, at Hallo Bay; to the northeast in Katmai National Preserve; and even north along the coast at—you guessed it—Amakdedori Beach, the proposed industrial port site.
In developing its draft EIS, the Corps has chosen to deliberately ignore the concerns, advice, and expertise of not only independent bear experts, but one of its cooperating agencies, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It’s as if the Corps were acting on behalf of the Pebble Project, not in the public’s interest—or the greater good, which includes existing wilderness and wildlife that would be harmed.
This is how it appears to me, and I’m far from alone: despite all the evidence presented to the Corps, this federal agency would deliberately risk one of the world’s most amazing gatherings of wildlife, and a place, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, that for more than 50 years has shown—better than any other place on Earth—that people and bears can coexist when humans are willing to make some compromises and behave in a way that’s consistently respectful to bears.
This is more than unacceptable, it’s unconscionable. Unethical.
McNeil River bear sanctuary is an amazing success story, one that Alaskans—and the Department of Fish and Game—can rightfully be proud of. Pebble’s opponents have identified a multitude of reasons to prohibit the proposed mine. This is simply one more, but it’s a huge one. Even setting aside the Pebble Project’s potentially disastrous impacts on Bristol Bay, the harm it would do to McNeil River sanctuary and the region’s bears is reason enough to stop Pebble from moving forward.
To Submit Pebble Draft EIS Comments
Alaskans who would like to submit comments to the Army Corps of Engineers about its Pebble draft EIS can do so either using a form on the website www.PebbleProjectEIS.com; by email to email@example.com; or by postal mail to: Program Manager, US Army Corps of Engineers, 645 G St., Suite 100-921, Anchorage, AK 99501. Comments are due by June 29.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including Alaska’s Bears and Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife. He’s written extensively about McNeil River’s bears and the Pebble Project.