As tourism surges, Katmai Natl. Park seeks to educate public on wildlife safety through permits
The Brooks River is about a mile long, and it’s best known for the falls, where brown bears gather in the summer to catch salmon, and people gather to watch the bears.
Upriver is a popular area for sport fishing, hiking and photography. But in recent years, as tourism has increased, Park Superintendent Mark Sturm said they’ve dealt with more interactions between humans and wildlife — he said they've observed bears learning to pursue fish on the end of fishing lines.
"Once in a while, we'll see an individual with a fish on the line that's actually teasing a bear, you know, kind of encouraging that behavior," he said. "And if that becomes fairly common, it's going to be very problematic for us as managers and for the whole circumstance.”
The park has seen a steady surge in tourism, which has more than doubled over the last decade, according to Sturm, although that did take a dip during the pandemic. So last year, the park piloted a permit system that aimed to raise awareness about the regulations along the river and to help people keep their distance from the bears.
“There's an awful lot of angling that occurs in the Brooks River. Again, it’s a fairly short river — there's only so much activity that the river can support," he said. "And it's important that your listeners understand, too, that there's also an awful lot of Alaska brown bears that are present in the river in the summer months during the time when that permit is required.”
The permits are specifically for a corridor that includes the Brooks River and 50 yards from the water on either bank in the section upstream from Brooks Camp. People don’t need that permit to subsistence fish for redfish in the area, and they aren’t required for the trails, camp or observation platforms.
The permits are free, though there’s a $6 booking fee. They’re required from June 15 - Oct. 31. Seven-day permits are for both commercial and recreational use and can be used by groups of up to six people. There's a one-day permit that groups can get at the visitor center in September. The park also required commercial guides to have season-long passes.
Last year, the park required permit holders to sign in on clipboards each day, and it “strongly encouraged” groups to stay 100 yards away from each other to allow bears to move freely and lower the risk of interacting with them.
Sturm said they consulted a number of stakeholders to develop the initial permit system, but since it’s new, they’re looking for more feedback on how it worked and what could change. For example, there is currently no limit to how many permits are issued each year, but they could set one if there’s public interest in doing so. Sturm said that so far, the permits have been a useful tool for the park; people were safer along the river and it gave staff a way to talk to visitors and help them understand the regulations.
“Also for those folks, and they are very few, but they did occur, that just were not wanting to adhere to the regular regulations, that allowed us an option to have those folks removed from the river corridor so that those that remained can could enjoy their time in a special place that is the Brooks River,” he said.
The permits are just one attempt to address the swelling number of tourists. They’re also facing issues with infrastructure at Brooks Camp.
“With so many people, you know, we are having to adjust our operations," Sturm said. "Maybe shorten the time that people can be at the platforms to observe wildlife, for example, or to adjust the amount of time that people are able to enjoy a meal at the Brooks lodge, those kinds of things.”
The park will start working on a plan for the camp area after this season. And there will be at least one other change this year; a new sewage lagoon will be ready by summer.
The deadline to submit comments on the Brooks River permits is April 28.
The park will also hold the following public meetings:
Monday, April 3, 7 - 8 p.m. at the Coast Inn Hotel in Anchorage.
Tuesday April 4, 7 - 8 p.m. at the Best Western Bidarka Inn in Homer.
Monday April 17, 7 - 8 p.m. at 1000 Silver St, King Salmon.
An option to call-in and attend virtually will also be available during the public meeting held on April 17, 2023.
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