A mix of bear watchers, photographers and other bruins on the Chilkoot River caused a stressful situation for one mother bear that nearly resulted in a dangerous confrontation with humans.
"This particular incident was the one that could have ended very badly and it is to the credit of the bear that nobody was harmed," said Shannon Donahue, park specialist with Alaska State Parks and bear monitor at Chilkoot River. "This was the closest call that I’m aware of on the river corridor over the past two seasons and I doubt the people involved have any idea how risky their behavior was."
The incident began around 8 p.m. on Aug. 25 with a bear and her cubs near Deer Rock. She began getting nervous when three other families of bears appeared down river and starting making their way up.
Donahue said this particular bear is the mother of four cubs, an unusually high number of offspring. The large brood means this mother is already taxed and working hard to maintain her caloric intake and energy.
Donahue said it’s not likely that any of the bears were a threat to each other, but it made them more anxious in general.
About this same time, the mother of four watched her smallest cub get washed down river. The cub was able to climb on to the bank and started bawling to its mother, who was in the middle of the river.
"This was definitely adding to her stress," Donahue said.
When Donahue saw the mother swimming to the riverbank near the road, she tried to get visitors and vehicles to move away from the area, hoping that would allow the bear and cubs to cross the road into the woods. But Donahue said some of the visitors would not budge, causing the bear to pause near the people.
The bear stood on her hind legs, a move Donahue said wasn’t aggressive, but rather allowed the bear to see and smell better. Then she began roaring and snarling and rustling some bushes. The bear was about 10 to 15 feet away from a group of people, Donahue said.
The bear then dropped down on all four legs, went back to the river with her cubs and crossed to the far side.
The situation could have turned out differently, Donahue said.
"There was definitely potential that she could have crashed through those people," she said.
The bear could have taken refuge in some other brush on the bank, except Donahue said she didn’t realize at the time there were two photographers in the bushes, hidden from her view when she first arrived on scene. Another visitor alerted her to the photographers’ presence.
"I told them to come up to the road, which they did, but by then they had already displaced the bears, forcing up to the road where the other bear-viewers and vehicles were," she said. "Had they gotten out of the way when the bears approached, the bears could have sought cover in the vegetation down there or continued to work the riverside."
There have been other instances this season in which bears have given ‘warnings" to people through body language and behavior. Donahue said in most of those cases, it’s a matter of the bears getting stressed because the people are blocking the bear’s exit route or people trying to get too close to cubs.
It’s also difficult for people to always gauge a bear’s response to a situation, Donahue said. She said bears typically try to avoid conflict by trying to ignore a stressor, like another bear or a human. Sometimes people take this response to mean that a bear is not feeling threatened by a person, so the person tries getting closer.
Donahue said people are getting too close to bears on a daily basis. But she does see improvement once visitors become educated.
"The human behavior is not worse than it has been in the past," Donahue said. "I typically see improvement in most people’s behavior as they learn how to behave more appropriately around bears, but with the constant turnover of visitors to the river, we have to start our educational efforts from scratch every day."