Bear Man of McNeil River
At the biggest gathering of brown bears in the world, sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller teaches peaceful coexistence to people
On a cool, overcast afternoon, 10 tourists and two guides
sit beside coastal mudflats on the upper Alaska Peninsula
watching a female brown bear and her yearling cub graze on
marsh plants. The mom is Ms. Mouse, so named because of an
M-shaped scar on her nose and her mousy color. Her cub is
Lucky: When younger, he escaped two attacks by adult males,
unharmed. "If we're quiet," says Larry Aumiller,
manager of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, "they may
come our way."
Females with cubs are notoriously aggressive. But Ms.
Mouse stops 75 feet away and resumes feeding. Lucky, his
curiosity piqued by our presence, slowly keeps coming,
sniffing the air. When the cub is 10 feet away, Aumiller--who
at 155 pounds weighs only 30 pounds more than Lucky--takes a
step forward. The cub jumps back, popping his teeth, a sign
of stress or agitation. Ms. Mouse is now about 30 feet away,
looking our way and drooling saliva, also a sign of stress.
She softly woofs. Lucky pauses and then rejoins her. They
"That was just about perfect," Aumiller tells
us. "We had a curious cub exploring its world, learning
its boundaries. So what we had to do, through our body
language, was tell him, 'Okay, that's close enough.' We
taught him some limits, without causing too much distress to
And so it goes for the "Bear Man of McNeil
River," who for 20 years has given lessons to two
unlikely species--brown bears and people--in how to coexist.
His classroom, 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, is
178-square-mile McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, home to
the largest gathering of brown bears (coastal subspecies of
grizzlies) in the world. As many as 126 individual bears have
been identified along the river in a single season. At the
sanctuary's prime spot for bears to catch salmon--a 300-yard
series of falls, pools and rapids called McNeil Falls--nearly
70 bears have been counted at one time.
For brown bears to gather in such large numbers, and in
such close quarters, is exceptional. That they do so while
viewed by humans is even more remarkable. Bears tend to be
wary of people, or they can learn to associate people with
food and overcome their wariness, becoming aggressive.
"A lot of people, including so-called experts, have
always believed that habituated bears are dangerous,"
says Derek Stonorov, an independent bear researcher and,
since 1991, a member of the McNeil staff. "McNeil has
proved the opposite is true, if food is removed from the
Says Aumiller, "Think about it: At the falls, you've
got this group of 11 or 12 people standing in the middle of
30, 40, 50, 60 bears. You're very close to where they want to
be. And they tolerate you." Not only that, but some eat,
nap, nurse cubs and even mate within a short distance of the
viewing pad used by human visitors.
Aumiller's own bear education started in 1972,
when he was doing fish counts in the field for the Alaska
Department of Fish and Game. Returning one night to his
cabin, he spotted a brown bear heading his way. He made it
inside without incident, bolted the door, placed a chair in
the middle of the room and spent a sleepless night in the
chair, a loaded gun across his lap.
From that inauspicious beginning, Aumiller has become one
of the world's experts in bear behavior. "There's nobody
who's better at reading brown bears and understanding their
behavior," says Jim Faro, a longtime regional manager
with Fish and Game. Faro first saw Aumiller's potential in
1974, when the young naturalist volunteered to help study
brown bears for a summer. Aumiller was an able student and
showed "an ability to control himself under stressful
conditions," says Faro dryly--particularly when darting
and tagging bears in Katmai National Park.
Often done near dusk and in heavy brush, such work
requires researchers to sneak within 50 feet of the bears.
Threatening charges by the bears are inevitable, and
researchers often have to go into heavy brush to find their
darted--but not necessarily properly drugged--subjects.
"By the time we got done with that study," says
Faro, "I knew Larry wouldn't panic in situations of
Faro's responsibilities then included the McNeil
sanctuary, established in 1967, where bears had become
scarce. "We had people running up and down both sides of
the river," recalls Faro. "There were even people
fishing at the falls, right where the bears feed. It was
crazy at times." Faro fought for visitor controls, which
went into effect in 1973, in the form of a limited number of
required permits. And the bears slowly started coming back.
In 1976, Faro recruited Aumiller to run the show.
Flying into McNeil in late June that year, the new
manager pressed his face against the window and searched the
landscape for bears. "I was sure there'd be at least one
behind every bush," he now laughs. On the ground,
Aumiller still saw no bears. He inflated his raft and made it
to the cabin that would be his summer home. Shortly after
entering, he heard a loud thumping outside: A bear was
hopping up and down on the raft, which was half-filled with
supplies. He yelled, and the bear left. "No harm was
done," he says. "But it was almost like a setup,
like there's some orchestrator in the sky who says, 'Okay,
first I'll let him get excited, then I'll let him relax and
then I'll hit him with this.'"
Aumiller misinterpreted much bear behavior those first
few summers. Back then, he often resorted to bird shot (which
stings the bears but doesn't harm them) when bears strolled
into the sanctuary's campground, the only place at McNeil
off-limits to bears. "We overdid it," he now says.
"Now we use human noises--we'll shout or bang on
pans--to chase bears out, and that works just as well."
Aumiller also thought bears approaching him on the trail were
invariably aggressive. But over time, he learned that most of
the time, the bears were simply using the path. "Now we
just step aside and let them go on by," he says.
As the years passed, Aumiller's anxieties gave way
to boldness. "It almost felt like I was in
control," he says, laughing. "Of course that's
absolutely crazy. I wanted to learn everything possible about
bears. And at the time, I didn't feel I was taking
unjustifiable risks." So a few times in those early
years, he visited McNeil Falls at night. His nighttime vigils
(three times with a companion, once alone) were, he admits,
scary: "You've deprived yourself of your best sense,
sight. And yet the bears still have available their best
More troubling, however, was the sense that he'd violated
his agreement with the bears: Suddenly humans were at the
falls at night. So he stopped the night visits, but not
before he discovered "a night shift" of mostly
larger, people-wary, male bears fishing under cover of
Aumiller's curiosity led to other early experiments.
Three times, he lay on the ground and allowed a 300-pound
adolescent bear to approach. When Aumiller didn't respond,
each bear sniffed his feet, stuck out its tongue and began
licking. "I think the next step is a little
nibbling," he chuckles, "but that's where I drew
the line. I'd say something, and that would be enough to
Eventually, Aumiller found a more cautious middle ground,
in part because of some sobering experiences. In one case, he
took a riverside walk after watching a mother named Duggie
and her three cubs on the grassy hillside behind camp, 200
feet away. Walking along the beach, he moved out of the
bears' sight. Suddenly, one of the cubs began woofing in
panic, which agitated Duggie. She bolted down the hill toward
Aumiller until she was only a few yards away from him. She
screeched to a halt, woofed a couple of times, then turned
and ran off with her cubs. "I learned a lesson about
being more cautious, more aware," says Aumiller.
The bears that come to McNeil River spend most of
their adult lives spread over hundreds of square miles; few
dens have been found within the sanctuary itself. They come
to the river for the salmon, an abundant and reliable
high-energy food source. The prime fishing spot is McNeil
Falls, a natural barrier for the fish.
At the falls, the bears take up fishing positions based
on their place in the ursine pecking order. Prime spots are
along the northern bank, opposite the viewing pads set aside
for people. Immediately below the uppermost falls, the most
dominant bears--adult males, some weighing 1,200 pounds or
more--jockey for position. Dominance is usually determined by
size, but there are exceptions.
Even the largest males tend to avoid females with cubs,
despite a huge size advantage (a large female is likely to
weigh 600 to 700 pounds). But the females know that other
bears sometimes kill cubs, and fueled by maternal instincts,
mothers with cubs are aggressive and will sometimes fight to
the death to protect their offspring. There's often
considerable tension between the bears, especially when few
salmon are available. Stress is signaled by drooling,
laid-back ears, body posture and deliberate movements.
Rarely, however, does the tension lead to physical contact.
Less dominant bears usually back away--slowly. The worst
thing a bear (or human) can do is turn tail and run, since
that can trigger aggression in the more dominant bear.
For visitors watching from the viewing pad, the
threat displays are ample reminder that the bears are wild
carnivores equipped to kill other large mammals. Still,
Aumiller believes the chances of humans being harmed, or even
charged, by McNeil's bears are exceedingly small. "It
was a gradual process," he says, "but over time it
became clear from their actions that the more tolerant bears
were perceiving us as neutral objects, maybe as innocuous as
a rock or a tree."
That notion of neutrality is key to the McNeil system,
which depends on what Aumiller calls benign interactions. One
of the most important principles is never letting the bears
associate humans with food. "We want the bears to feel
comfortable around us," says Aumiller, "yet not
have them seek us out for any reason, food being the prime
example. So we view every single interaction as a learning
experience; what we're trying to tell them is 'You can trust
us, allow us to be near you.' At the same time, we now define
a physical space around us, albeit a small one, and don't let
them inside it."
Some bear biologists still don't believe a habituated
bear can be safe. And even some who do are amazed by McNeil's
bears. Bear researcher Stephen Herrero, author of Bear
Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, could hardly believe
what he saw at McNeil during a 1995 visit. "I've studied
bear behavior for 28 years," he says, "and I didn't
fully understand how far you can go in the habituation
process until I visited McNeil. You can see the pictures, but
it's not the same as having a 1,000-pound bear a few feet
away, totally unconcerned by your presence."
Since the sanctuary's human-use restrictions were
first enforced 23 years ago, no people have been injured by
bears, nor have any bears been shot in self-defense. Yes,
there have been bear charges: Aumiller recalls eight he
describes as "brush-busting, jaw-popping,
saliva-dripping." All but one occurred when people were
doing things "a little bit differently than usual,"
such as being in a place not normally frequented by humans,
or out alone at dusk. And every one involved wary or partly
habituated bears, not the 50 or so that seem accustomed to
humans. "None of the intense charges," he says,
"have been by this core cadre of really tolerant
Bear numbers have more than doubled since Aumiller's
first year, from 38 individual adults counted along the river
in the 1976 season to an all-time high of 90 in 1993. And
McNeil's bears now routinely do things in front of people
that were rarely, if ever, seen in the 1970s, such as nurse
cubs and mate.
Wildlife biologists, as a rule, are more concerned
with populations than individual animals. But given his long
and close relationship with McNeil's bears, Aumiller has not
only learned to recognize individual bears, he has inevitably
developed some favorites. One is Teddy, a 500-pound,
light-brown, 17-year-old female. (Both female and male bears
may live into their mid to late 20s.) "Teddy's just a
wonderful bear," he says. "Not in the sense that a
human is; she's wonderful because she accepts us. She'll
bring her fish up, plop down 5 feet away, turn her back and
eat it. Or she'll bring her cubs up. She absolutely trusts
Such close ties to the bears have drawn some criticism,
most notably from the Fairbanks-based Alaska Outdoor Council
(AOC), a self-described sportsmen's group that advocates
hunting and trapping rights. "Having grown up on a
ranch, I can understand how Larry has become attached to
those animals," says AOC President Rod Arno, a
bear-hunting guide. "But it's unfortunate he has stayed
there 20 years. Because of his personal feelings, he's become
more of an advocate than a manager. And he has gone beyond
habituation. What he calls tolerant, I call tame. What he has
done at McNeil is totally unnatural. He has created this
pocket of bears that are treated like domesticated
animals." Aumiller disagrees that McNeil's bears are
behaving unnaturally. He cites abundant evidence, from the
sanctuary and beyond, of the animals' ability to adapt to,
and tolerate, people.
Then there's the issue of human defense. Even some of
Aumiller's colleagues have questioned whether he'd be able to
shoot one of his favorite bears if it posed a threat. He
responds: "One of the absolute worst things that could
happen at McNeil is for a person to get killed or injured by
a bear. As bad as I'd feel about doing it, I wouldn't
hesitate to shoot."
Over the years, the sorts of people who visit
McNeil have changed. Two decades ago, most were professional
photographers or biologists. But as McNeil gained fame, it
attracted more of what Aumiller calls average travelers, like
our group that saw Lucky's lesson. Nearly all visitors come
with realistic expectations, but most still bring what
Aumiller calls "the innate fear of big furry things that
can bite." By the time they leave, most have exchanged
any irrational fears for fascination and respect.
Out on mud flats near the river, 10 tourists gather for a
final afternoon. The bear activity has slowed, and we turn
our attention to Aumiller. "What goes on here is still
news to a lot of people," he says. "By allowing
people to connect with these critters, we're doing something
that's good for the bears. It bodes well for the future of
the critters and their habitat."
Alaska writer Bill Sherwonit
visited McNeil's bears for this article. He is author of
Alaska's Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler's Guide to
Alaska's State Parks (Alaska Northwest Books, 1996).
Photographer and sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller published a
collection of his bear photos in River of Bears (Voyageur
Supporting the Bear
Through its office in Anchorage, the National Wildlife
Federation has repeatedly assisted officials at the McNeil
River State Game Sanctuary. Last year, NWF regional
representative Martha Levensaler volunteered her time for a
number of projects in the sanctuary. Previously, NWF
attorneys helped protect the integrity of the sanctuary's
ecosystem from outside disruption. For more information about
NWF's work in Alaska, write: Alaska Natural Resource Center,
Box NW, National Wildlife Federation, 750 W. Second Ave.,
Suite 200, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.
How To See McNeil's
The good news is that you don't have to stand in line to see
McNeil's bears. But you do have to enter a lottery for the
185 advance permits available each year--or take your chances
on getting one of 95 standby permits. Your chances are about
1 in 10. The permit system includes July-August viewing at
McNeil Falls and June viewing at nearby Mikfik Creek. For
more information, write: McNeil River, Alaska Department of
Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, 333
Raspberry Road, Anchorage, Alaska 99518-1599.