Bear Man of McNeil River

At the biggest gathering of brown bears in the world, sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller teaches peaceful coexistence to people

  • Bill Sherwonit
  • Aug 01, 1996
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 amble away.

"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 either bear."

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 equation."

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 extreme intensity."

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 sense, smell."

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 darkness.

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 discourage them."

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 bears."

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 us."

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 Press, 1993).

Supporting the Bear Sacntuary
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 Bears
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.

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