Chilkoot bear scene 'worse than a zoo'
By Tom Morphet
Crowding, garbage and careless behavior became so prevalent at Chilkoot River during last weekend’s Dominion Day holiday that some visitors say they’ll never come back.
Residents this week called for measures ranging from restoration of a bear monitor position to closure of the entire corridor until management improves.
Gottfried Esch, a photographer from Cologne, Germany who’s come here for seven years to see bears, described the mile-long river corridor as “dramatically changed” and “worse than a zoo.” Esch cited traffic jams, more than 100 anglers and disregard of bear-viewing protocols.
“Everybody stops in the no-stopping zone. There’s no education at all of the fishermen. They’re leaving their beer bottles and Red Bull cans around. If the cubs get a taste of Red Bull, and investigate at the campground and get a taste of it again, that’s the end of that bear. People are dropping their tins all over,” Esch said.
One bear, known as BMJ, became tangled in fishing line at one point. “All this shows there should be more education. Somebody should take care of this place, or people will start to say, ‘Haines is not what it was anymore.’”
Photographer Dusan Cizman of Bromberg, Ontario, has been coming to Haines for 12 years. This is his last visit, he said.
“The locals don’t respect what they have and the tourists are out of control,” Cizman said. He reported seeing bear cubs rooting through tackle boxes, dogs off leashes within 150 feet of bears, cruise ship passengers within 10 feet of bears, and the sow known as Speedy hemmed in by visitors.
Speedy also twice “chased people off” the bridge there, he said.
Cizman said when he tried explaining bear etiquette to others at Chilkoot, he was laughed at. “One guy said he’d take my cameras and smash them.”
Cizman said a bear monitor would make a “significant difference,” as the position has previously, but that state troopers also need to ticket motorists who are parking on the bridge. “It’s out of control right now. You can’t even drive. There are two lanes where cars are parked for hundreds of feet.”
Cizman said he grew up around bears in northern Ontario and has photographed them around the world. “This is the worst place for bear (awareness) that I’ve seen.”
Cizman said Haines businesses that make money on the bears should be leading the push for tighter regulation. He said he spent $1,300 here, but he’s fed up. “I’d like to emphasize how important these bears are for business. People with businesses should be protecting bears, because this is how they make their money.”
He estimated each bear at Chilkoot is worth $250,000 to the local economy.
Etta Meeks, a 12-year visitor from Florida, said she and her husband no longer want to go out to Chilkoot. Meeks said she has seen a “steady stream of vehicles” that stop or park anywhere, including one motorist asleep behind the wheel in the middle of the road.
“Once somebody notices Speedy and her cubs, all the cars and people begin racing toward them. It is pathetic,” Meeks said.
Shore excursion tour operator Dan Egolf this week launched a lobbying effort online to get the Division of Parks to restore a monitor position the state discontinued in 2013.
Speedy and her two cubs have gotten into anglers’ fish recently, he said. “None of this would have happened with a bear monitor,” Egolf said. “You wouldn’t have a guy in a bear suit. You wouldn’t have bears getting fish from fishermen.”
Egolf said a monitor enables a “culture” of responsible behavior to be created. “You tell people, ‘Don’t leave your fish or picnic baskets out, you’ll be cited.’ That worked.”
Egolf said that in the event of big crowds like last weekend’s, two monitors on bicycles might be able to keep the peace. But those who are hired as monitors must have the temperament for working with people, he said. “We’ve had bear monitors who haven’t had the right personality. That doesn’t work at all.”
Egolf said he thinks new park ranger Travis Russell is doing a good job, but that the parks division needs more support along the river, which lies just outside Chilkoot Lake state park. “I don’t want to put Travis on the hot seat, because he’s trying to do his job out there.”
Haines Chamber of Commerce president Kyle Gray this week described the situation at Chilkoot as “highly-charged and competitive – not just among commercial user groups, but between any engagement of people, vehicles, bears, fish, and government agencies.”
Gray said the business group has participated over the years in attempts to manage or subdue problems at Chilkoot, but that until “we agree a bear monitor is needed, the current conditions will persist.”
Shannon Donahue, a Haines-based bear researcher who served two years as bear monitor and serves as executive director of the nonprofit Great Bear Foundation, said this week that one monitor isn’t enough to deal with high-traffic days. Chilkoot, she said, offers “probably the most accessible brown bears in the world.”
“State parks need to have rules and to enforce them seven days a week. The reality is they probably need a whole suite of people working (along the river),” Donahue said. Bear monitors should have a high level of education and experience, she said. “It can’t be a technician.”
It’s up to the state to determine the quality of the visitor experience at Chilkoot, she said.
“This is not a place that’s managed for bear-viewing. It comes down to whether the state wants to do anything serious about management there,” Donahue said. As opposed to photographers this week who complained about lack of management, she has spoken to others who are glad to be able to photograph there without oversight.
“We’re drawing the dregs, honestly. People see that the state has no expectations for how people are behaving out there. A lot of tourists want to do the right thing, but they have no idea,” Donahue said.
The Chilkoot bears became an issue in the late 1990s, when brown bear sows and cubs started using the river to feed during daylight hours. A dozen or more bears have gathered along the river to feed on any given night, researchers have said.
In August 2000, researcher Anthony Crupi documented as many as 110 cars and trucks along the mile-long river on a single night and witnessed “frequent” incidents of people coming within 15 feet of bears.
At least $100,000 of public and private money was spent on a 2003 strategic planning project and signage project aimed at alleviating run-ins between people and bears. Today, 10 tours are permitted to take visitors along the river and the site is listed in State of Alaska literature and publications like Alaska Magazine as a place to watch bears.
Said tour operator Egolf, who has guided along the Chilkoot since the mid-1980s, “We’ve seen it go from some fishermen and some berry pickers to what it is today.”
Egolf said some progress has been made, including erecting signage, ending overnight camping along the road, and ending trespassing on Native lands along the river opposite the road. He’s a member of the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation, a private group aimed at funding bear awareness efforts.
The foundation is hosting a “Celebration of Bears” festival this weekend in Haines. It pushed the Haines Borough to adopt an ordinance requiring residents to stow garbage from bears and also has established a lending program for residents to get electric fences and other devices to keep bears away from private property.
Egolf is skeptical of a $800,000 effort the state is making to build bear-viewing platforms along the river and other landscaping changes aimed at minimizing run-ins between people and bears. He called the platforms, set to the built next year, as “three blobs of concrete” that will degrade the visitor experience there. Others have said that without a monitor or other personnel policing behavior along the river, the platforms are unlikely to make much of a difference for protecting bears.
Researcher Donahue said the platforms send a mixed message, suggesting that the Chilkoot is a bear-viewing area like McNeil River or Wrangell’s Anan Creek, but it’s not managed that way, she said.
Division of Parks officials have cited funding shortfalls as well as past authority issues with the bear monitor job for no longer funding the position. Regional parks superintendent Mike Eberhardt said last week that an Alaska Conservation Corps worker coming on the job will cover some monitor duties.
The state closed its parks in Valdez and Sitka this year, and closed Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska's largest park.