Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme Park

One of Alaska’s most treasured bear-viewing sites is about to be turned into a destination theme park, sacrificing grizzly bear habitat on the altar of commercial development. After a decade of development planning, EIS and public input, once aimed at major improvements in resource protection, the National Park Service has aborted earlier plans for removal of facilities at Brooks River in Katmai National Park. Protection of a unique population of bears at this premier site is now seriously compromised, going against 50 years of research-based recommendations. A stealth plan to expand development into bear habitat on both sides of Brooks River has quietly been hatched turning prime bear habitat into a sacrifice area. The Service is abandoning the long-planned removal of visitor and park facilities from one side of the river, the heart of essential bear habitat. Only moneyed interests will be happy.

Across the USA we are about to witness another instance of commercial development over-running the Park Service’s responsibility to protect park wildlife resources. Those who remember a similar planning process to eliminate the Fishing Bridge development in Yellowstone National Park for relocation out of essential grizzly habitat will recognize this current sham advancing for similar reasons at Brooks River.

Brooks bears are a large, ecologically unique population that concentrates in a small area around Brooks Camp in the heart of Katmai National Park due to unusual physical and ecological conditions.  Nowhere does such a dense aggregation of bears extend their fishing over a 4-month long season as a result of a super-abundance of salmon available first at a 5 foot falls then moving into spawning streams over a wide area culminating in massive carcass accumulations accessible into the fall.  Over time these protected bears have developed complex traditions to efficiently exploit this rich resource, a fascinating pattern unreported anywhere else on the planet.  This unparalleled ecological and behavioral complex stands to be degraded before the phenomenon is fully understood. If the massive permanent bridge, encroaching on both sides of the river and already designed and funded, is constructed, excessive human presence, accompanied by elevated noise and disturbance, and predictable over-use, will severely damage the area.

This ecological gem has further value because of the surprising but successful 50-year recovery, moving toward historically natural, high numbers and density of brown bears.   This high density permits the full ecological role of the bears in the system to be fully realized: processes such a nutrient transport into the higher elevation forests, seed transport in fecal deposits are now at work, but bridge impacts are likely to threaten ecological and behavioral functions that have yet to be discovered.

Studies beginning in 1955 followed by others in the early 90s showed clear impacts of escalating visitation at Brooks Camp and the attendant din of aircraft engines, boat motors and motorized vehicles used to service visitors.  Approximately half of the female bears with cubs were prevented from using large parts of their feeding habitat due to human activities.  Currently the number of visitors, aircraft landings and noise grows unabated. A high permanent bridge and a new 1500 foot elevated walkway threaten the last relatively people-free bear habitat.

There is rich irony in the Park Service’s failure to impose any limits on visitation compared to McNeil River’s visitor management (10 person limit) by Alaska Fish and Game, oft ridiculed as the hook and bullet bureaucracy, and not recognized for their conservation agenda in the McNeil case. Over 10,000 visitors arrive by seaplane or boat between May and October, with daily use exceeding 300 visitors during peak times. The fingerprints of the late Sen. Ted Stephens are all over Katmai management as a destination tourism cash cow. On the other hand, the state defends bear hunting interests by strangling bear-viewing state-wide. Nice trick.

If current plans for these permanent structures proceed the impacts of people on bear use will envelop virtually all of their essential habitat on both sides of the lower river.  This includes bears using the beach, Brooks Camp area, riffles, falls and the whole lower river.  Instead of providing people-free zones for bears, the amended plans have mysteriously mutated into development over-kill instead of the camp removal that was approved and which the public was promised.  As currently conceived the construction will not remove the concessionaire lodge and facility and will expand the footprint of development over archeological resources and valuable bear habitat, development which encourages further human impacts over larger areas with accompanying harassment and disturbance of bears.

A former Katmai National Park Superintendent, Ray Bane, wrote this recently:

Decisions as to the future of Brooks River must be, in large part, founded on scientific research. It is significant that three eminent bear biologists who had endorsed the Final Brooks River Development Concept Plan have recently withdrawn their support for the amended plan. Their rejection of the current plan reflects a growing concern that the welfare of the affected bear population will be adversely impacted by the on-going expansion of facilities and human activities at Brooks River.

The primary attraction at Brooks River is not the scenery or inanimate geological features. It is the bears, one of the most intelligent and complex species of wildlife found in North America. These animals are more than mere animate objects providing public entertainment. In their natural setting they have much to teach us about the complexities of nature and our own place in the natural world. We have much to learn from them, but that will require that we respect their fundamental needs and not overly impose our presence on their habitat.

As a university scientist I studied bear behavior and bear-human interactions for the Park Service under contracts beginning in 1984. Those studies of potential conflicts showed that Brooks Camp, including a concessionaire’s lodge, cabins and park service buildings were situated on trails used daily by bears during the summer salmon runs. Our results and the parks’ own records supported earlier studies by Will Troyer in the 50s. Troyer recommended that Brooks Camp be moved away from the heart of bear habitat. All studies showed that 500-1000 lb. bears were walking in close proximity to hundreds of people both day and night.

In 1998 the NPS regional office invited two wildlife biologists, Drs. Christopher Servheen and John Schoen, to assess Brooks bear-human interactions. Their report said that Brooks Camp is “the most dangerous bear-human interaction situation” of which they were aware.

Since the current amended plan allows dozens of float planes to land each day and deliver passengers on the same north beach as well as permitting the lodge and cabins to remain in bear habitat, the major source of conflicts remains. This means that a planned $5 million bridge and elevated walkway will no longer reduce these interactions with bears except in some minor locations.

The Park Service’s reversal in plans without adequate public review or even sufficient announcement is a threat to America’s willingness to trust this institution and calls into question the Service’s ability to resist political pressure that puts profits for a concession above the protection of the nation’s most cherished biological and cultural resources. We all need to insist that the NPS uphold its mission as mandated in the Organic Act of 1916, which is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  The appended plan needs to go back to the drawing board.

Barrie Gilbert is a retired Utah State University ecologist living in Canada.






  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Wow. How awful. Is there anything that can be done?

    1. Rob Edward Avatar
      Rob Edward

      Buy a copy of Ecodefense . . . and use it!

  2. Connie Reppe Avatar
    Connie Reppe

    Another national domestic disgrace. The throwing of lucky pennies in the water, and the explotations of marring initials onto wood, noise-noise, etc., for reason’s to see ‘even in a person’s lifetime,’ the confines of development in Alaska’s open air market zoo. Warnings!in post signage in-allowing manmade barriers for fanfare, and vanity. To roadway line paint on gravel. And, yet on the other hand there is pause-pause to those of whom in their life studies to known in history, and in the unobstructed insight of the Katmai grizzlies natural existence. And on the other hand is perhaps ignored, unknown, recognized or misunderstood of a trending sightseer within a sightseer’s wilderness surely attendance will most likely be unaware that the experience to view in seeing or looking within a wild landscape is management,of an unnatural existence,’standing-up more often on hindquarters to view the commotion?’and, movements of the Katmai grizzlies. Truly, pathetic in the way of which curiousity is tailored made, and managed to minutes, to a few hours of daylight in the day’s excursion of a certain cost at-hand for accomodations, and the walk. I forsee the unexpected naturally reoccurring in act’s of impersonal arrogance. Its very bad, bad judgement all-around and personally I would not choose to be a part of the scene.

  3. Craig Avatar

    Having spent a week at Katmai last July I can offer some observations. Probably Brooks Camp is poorly sited because of sanitation issues. It is a convenient site, however, for float planes. The Park Service is committed to moving staff housing south of Brooks River and away from the bear concentration area. The floating bridge across the river forces bears moving along the river to walk up on the trail used by visitors. An elevated bridge and approaches would solve this problem. Rangers do an outstanding job keeping visitors and bears separated. Bears are given the right of way. Katmai bears are not anything like Yellowstone bears. They are very habituated to people and since 1985 there has been only one bear that required lethal control. The Park Service has done an outstanding job keeping human foods away from the bears. I am sure if the Park Service continues to carefully manage the situation thousands of people will continue to enjoy observing this unique situation.

  4. Nancy Avatar

    Greed $$$ is the driving factor behind this expansion.

    IMHO, this is the best way to view these bears, Craig (highlights from last year)

    “The primary attraction at Brooks River is not the scenery or inanimate geological features. It is the bears, one of the most intelligent and complex species of wildlife found in North America.

    *** These animals are more than mere animate objects providing public entertainment.

    In their natural setting they have much to teach us about the complexities of nature and our own place in the natural world. We have much to learn from them, but that will require that we respect their fundamental needs and not overly impose our presence on their habitat”

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It really does sound like an accident waiting to happen. But, that’s what people do – push for their activities in spite of any dangers. If I recall, wasn’t this the same place where some idiot dressed in a bear suit was antagonizing the bears? There’s always one fool that ruins everything for others, and increasingly more fools.

    No bear should have to be ‘lethally controlled’ because of human activities, and steps should be taken to minimize human contact and habituation, and not making wild areas into glorified zoos for human entertainment. Clowns should be in amusement parks, not wilderness:

  6. Craig Avatar

    Katmai bears are definitely not in a zoo. The Park Service has done well keeping bears and people safe. The Katmai bears really are focused on salmon. Generations of bears have been raised in close proximity to people at Brooks Falls. You can stand on the viewing platform and watch the little cubs study the people. For sure the float planes are a little noisy, but that noise is pretty much confined to the lodge area. We saw bears walk right past float planes. In fact, our boarding was delayed to allow a bear to pass. At the falls, it is falling water and the occasional bear fight that you here. If you want a more wilderness experience, there are lots of back country bears that never visit the falls or see tourists crowds. Our experience was that these wilderness bears paid more attention to us, but were never threatening. I would highly recommend visiting Katmai National Park.

    The bear suite guy was in Haines which is a long way from Katmai.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I hope to visit one day. I’m sure the Park Service does the best it can under the circumstances. National Parks may not be ‘zoos’ per se, but it is people’s perception of them that I am concerned about.

  7. JOhn R Avatar
    JOhn R

    Where do we find out information about the stealth plan?

  8. silvia Avatar

    No matter who supervises the bears and people observing them, the bears deserve peace and quiet..that’s their home and not human’s home. nature has no owner even though humans imposed themselves as “owners” of the whole planet…
    You cant just ignore the fact that you’ll disrupt the bear’s daily rutine and watch tourists invade their privacy. but i guess these people care only for themselves and that’s it.

  9. Connie Reppe Avatar
    Connie Reppe

    Recommend The Grizzly Truth grillytruth @grizzlytruth Quote worthy;”Documentary that scrutinizes the motivations and arguments for grizzly bear hunting, while dispelling the myth of the dangerous and ferocious grizzly bear.” Un quote. And, Quote worthy;”The Grizzly Truth reveals the last moments of Timothy Treadwell’s death as Charlie Russell reads the transcript of the “death” tape that was never played in Grizzly Man”. Unquote. Also recommended introduction to EXPOSED John E. Marriott

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Here is a link to the trailer Connie, where one can rent or buy DVD from Vimeo.

      I’ll have to see if my local video store can obtain a copy and have it available to rent.

      Quite a few unconfirmed sightings of grizzlies over the years in my area and a confirmed sighting last year over in the Big Hole Valley.

  10. Connie Reppe Avatar
    Connie Reppe

    Error for correction-

  11. Rosalie Avatar

    This is so sad. Pleasure leave Katmai and the bears be as meant to be.. Wild.

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Barrie Gilbert