It’s time for City Wilds to leave Anchorage for a short while and venture southwest to the upper Alaska Peninsula, home to one of our state’s—and the Earth’s—greatest natural wonders: the annual gathering of brown bears at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.

Located some 250 miles from Anchorage, McNeil River annually hosts the world’s largest gathering of brown bears (the coastal relatives of interior-dwelling grizzlies). Each year, scores of bears congregate at McNeil River Falls and, earlier in the summer, neighboring Mikfik Creek, drawn there 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 from a platform above McNeil Falls.

But 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. Every day during the peak of McNeil River’s chum return—which generally runs from early July into early August—visitors and 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.

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.

Why, you may be wondering, am I bringing this to your attention in late February? For this reason: visitors to McNeil are chosen by lottery; and the deadline to apply for a permit is March 1, now only a few days away.

The lottery is necessary because only 10 visitors per day are allowed to view McNeil’s bears. That limit is a big part of McNeil’s success, in keeping with the sanctuary philosophy—and practice—that here, the bears come first. By keeping visitor numbers small and human activities within the sanctuary as predictable as possible, the program’s impact on the bears that live here is minimal.

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 learn something important: that people—at least those they meet at the McNeil River sanctuary—are not a danger, nor a source of food.

The high degree of acceptance shown by McNeil’s bears may be the sanctuary’s—and longtime manager Larry 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. Furthermore, he and other staff, have shown that such people-tolerant bears—Aumiller calls them “neutrally habituated”—are safe to be around: “Over time it became clear from their actions that the more tolerant bears at McNeil were perceiving us as neutral objects, maybe as innocuous as a rock or a tree.”

Anyone who doubts his 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.

Here are a few more details for those who’d like to apply for permits (which are good for four days of bear viewing), the first step to witnessing the “McNeil experience” in person. First and foremost, I’d recommend you check out the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s McNeil River website, www.mcneilriver.adfg.alaska.gov. Once there, you can get an overview of the sanctuary and all the visitor information you need for a safe and successful visit. And of course you can learn more about the permit system and apply for a permit through the lottery.

The application fee is $30. Alaskans winning a permit must then pay $225 to visit McNeil River while nonresidents are charged $525. It’s also possible to win a less expensive “standby” permit; that too is explained on the website.

Further information can also be obtained by contacting the state’s Lands and Refuges Manager, Ed Weiss, at (907) 267-2189 or ed.weiss@Alaska.gov.

To end, I’ll add that a story I wrote for the Anchorage Press last spring (“Pebble Project’s threat to McNeil River’s bears must be taken seriously”) provides more information about the sanctuary and also the looming danger posed by the proposed Pebble Mine project. The link is https://www.anchoragepress.com/news/pebble-project-s-threat-to-mcneil-river-s-bears-must/article_3f7816ae-766d-11e9-a3c3-77e0d496395c.html.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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