On the evening of July 9, two men narrowly avoided being mauled by a family of four brown bears (coastal grizzlies) at Alaska’s famous Diving Bear Wildlife Viewing Area. It lies roughly 40 miles west of Nikiski, at the entrance to Lake Clark Pass, encompassing the mouth of Wolverine Creek. This is one of the few known sites where people can watch bears dive off of rocks into a lake to catch salmon, and one of only three known sites on the Pacific Coast where viewers have a good chance of seeing both brown and black bears.
More than a decade ago, after numerous dangerous bear-human confrontations at the mouth of Wolverine Creek, fishing from shore was banned. Now all fishing is done from boats or from the floats of a plane. Unfortunately, not everyone got the message. When an employee of nearby Redoubt Bay Lodge spotted the two men fishing from shore, they were urged to immediately return to their plane. After nearly ten minutes of delay, the anglers reluctantly did so. Less than one minute later, right where one of the anglers had been standing, a mother brown bear and her cubs burst out of the brush as they raced forward to catch salmon. Had the anglers not already vacated the site, the surprise of finding people mere yards away might have panicked the bears and triggered defensive attack. It was precisely to avoid such risks that shore-fishing was banned. Surprising a sow with cubs at close range is the major cause of serious or fatal brown/grizzly bear attacks.
According to folklore, brown/grizzly bears are so fierce that they attack even without provocation, and especially to take food from people, if not to eat the people. Reality is a bit different. No matter how hungry these “diving bears” become, and no matter how many fish they see anglers catching and hauling aboard boats, sometimes less than ten feet from the bears, the bears have rarely attempted to get one of the fish, and even then they were easily discouraged without resort to a firearm. Far from being aggressive, the area’s several bear families tend to be extremely cooperative. In fact, recognizing that the presence of people keeps big adult males (boars) away from the Creek mouth, mothers with cubs depend on the refuge that humans inadvertently create.
Treated properly, these bears are an enormous recreational and financial asset to Southcentral Alaska. Each year, thousands of bear viewers and anglers visit the Diving Bear Wildlife Viewing Area, generating over $27 million annually for Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Anyone who insists on trying to fish from shore puts all that at risk.
Stephen F. Stringham, PhD
Member – Wolverine Creek
Consulting Wildlife Biologist
Director, Bear Viewing Association