Bear viewing

🕔Jul 28, 2006

We’re slowly puttering forward in a zodiak, gazing intently at the shoreline through binoculars.

“Yup,” Greg Palmer calls out with confidence, “there’s a bear.” He points toward what appears to be a large grayish-brownish rock or, alternatively, a stump, 300 metres away. I’m not convinced. But when I look back seconds later, it has mysteriously moved away from the beach.

Northword Magazine has been invited to join Palmerville Adventures and a group of five clients for a day’s boat excursion into the Khutzeymateen area, the only grizzly bear sanctuary in Canada, 45 kilometres northeast of Prince Rupert in the Coast Mountains.

For a first-timer the beauty of the area is nothing short of stunning. We’re surrounded by snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, seals, birds and the deep, blue sea.

Palmer has spent 25 years in the area, first on trips with his family, later as a logger and with the coast guard, and now as a guide since the early ‘90s. For the last five years he’s had a floating lodge in the Khutzeymateen, where tourists can fly in by floatplane or helicopter for three-hour tours or for overnight stays.

Two hours after we set off from the lodge, we’re still scanning every bear-grazing area known to Palmer—and there are quite a few—without any proof that the watershed is home to between 30 and 50 bears.

This is apparently out of the ordinary. The company has a very high success rate and usually is able to provide guests with plenty of safe close-up viewing opportunities.

When is the best time to watch a bear? I ask our expert. “A good time to watch a bear is when you see one,” he answers with a smile.

There is no doubt he’s just as excited over the possibility of spotting one as we are—despite the fact he must have seen thousands over the years. “Sometimes I’ve seen as many as 18 bears in a day. I don’t know how many I’ve seen in all—I lost count long ago,” he says.

He’s very good, however, at keeping track of “his” bears, and is able to identify many of them by sight. He has made up names to identify them, and through keen observation has come to know some of their histories and habits. Three years ago, for example, he observed two of his long-timers, Lucy and Blondie, when they pursued one of the 28-year-old “Barnacle Brothers,” swimming across the inlet together. Their joint action paid off—with three cubs each.

This summer, Palmer is incorporating a historical component to his tours, so wildlife viewers can learn about the traditional territories of the First Nations.

He’s also closely following the work of Sarah Elmeligi, a grad student at UNBC. She has spent two summers investigating the interactions between grizzlies and tourists in the Khutzeymateen. Last summer she collected data on bear behaviour and reactions to tourism traffic. This summer, all tourists on day trips with the two permitted operators who offer bear-viewing in the sanctuary will be surveyed by their guides. The objective is to find out the tourists’ perception of impact, and what aspects of bear-viewing have provided them with the most satisfaction.

She’s hoping the data will help BC Parks form a management plan that maximizes tourism satisfaction while minimizing potential negative impacts on the bears.

She points out that the Khutzeymateen bears have very little contact with people; tourists don’t get off their vessels, and there are no town-sites, roads, or campsites—hence no exposure to human food.

Bears here are able to maintain their natural habits much more than in some designated bear-viewing areas elsewhere, such as the game sanctuary at McNeil River State Park in Alaska, which has become internationally famous for spectacular wildlife-viewing.

In the 21 years since a management plan has been in effect at McNeil, bear use has doubled, no bear has had to be destroyed or removed from the area, and no human has been injured. Habituation is encouraged and bears routinely approach humans, including females that nurse cubs within five metres, adult males that sleep within five metres, and pairs that mate within 10 metres of humans. This is achieved by repetitive and predictable viewing situations, where each tourist group is accompanied by a staff member.

Regardless of habituation philosophy, bear viewing can promote bear conservation. “Increasing awareness and education are integral to the protection of the species. If people care, land gets protected,” Elmeligi says.

However, she recognizes some of the inherent challenges. “Wildlife viewing seems such a benign activity, but it still needs to be managed in a sustainable way or it can become damaging to the wildlife and the ecosystem.”

BC Parks has noted increased boat and air traffic in the Kutzeymateen Inlet over the past five years as the cruise ship industry has developed in Prince Rupert. “We have no data to demonstrate if this has had or will have an impact on the bears,” says Jamie Hahn, area supervisor with BC Parks. “We are certain, though, that better communication, co-operation, and timing of tours will help reduce the impact to bears’ daily routines.”

Hahn believes it’s also vital to preserve land from significant human intrusion. “Bears require large tracts of wild lands and utilize many different parts of the ecosystem seasonally.”

For clients that get to experience complete wilderness and true nature there, the Khutzeymateen becomes magical. “As far as interesting holidays go, I would rather spend a weekend in the Khutzeymateen than a month at an all-inclusive resort replete with bottomless booze and afternoon line-dancing classes,” Brian Hall, from Smithers, says with a shiver. “It’s part adventure and part relaxation for the soul—a must-do for everyone’s list.”

h3.Khutzeymateen’s ins and outs

*The Khutzeymateen was established as Canada’s first sanctuary for grizzly bears in 1994.

*Home to between 30 and 50 grizzlies, as well as black bears, it is 44,902 hectares in size.

*There is a no-shore-access policy to ensure the bears can function with as little disturbance as possible.

*There are several tour operators, of which only two enter the sanctuary itself. Palmerville Adventures’ tours are in the inlet.

*The park generates $15-20,000 in concession fees which support the employment of Khutzeymateen Rangers.

*Each year, around 125 guided visitors and 200 visitors in private vessels enter the sanctuary.

*There are plans to extend the Khutzeymateen boundary. The added area may be designated as a conservancy rather than a park, and there will be some sections that are not proposed for inclusion.

*Access to the estuary is during high-tide periods (one hour before or after high tide) and is limited to small motor-boats with four-stroke motors only (rated less than 50 horse power). No jet boats are permitted.

*Group size is limited to a maximum of 10 people, with only one group at a time within the estuary. Group size may be further limited by BC Parks staff depending on the number of non-guided visitors and where adverse affects to the bears or other resources is noted.

*The Park Act prohibits commercial logging, and the new conservancy designation also prohibits commercial timber harvesting.