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Harriman Expedition Retraced


expedition log



Brad Barr and Tom Litwin

Bagging a Bear: Then and Now

Although a century has passed since E. H. Harriman made his Alaskan voyage, we today struggle with some of the same issues that faced our 1899 counterparts. But with the passage of time, old values fall out of grace and new concerns and values emerge. With dramatic symbolism, the Kodiak brown bear reared up as a center of attention and controversy for both expeditions.

There were a number of reasons E. H. Harriman undertook his expedition. His doctors told him he needed a vacation, needed to get away. Many of the Harriman family friends and business associates were visiting exotic lands, and they too wanted to be part of that new trend in tourism. There was the opportunity to contribute scientific and anthropological accounts to the growing body of Alaskan information. And, with the wealth of Alaska's natural resources, there were potential business opportunities.

One additional, very clear goal was high on Mr. Harriman's list: his persistent desire to shoot a Kodiak bear. This was an era where trophy hunting was the sport of society's most accomplished. Skins and stuffed animals were coming from all over the world into America's natural history museums, oak paneled social clubs, and mansion libraries. With the study of natural history at the height of popularity, the lines between sport and scientific collecting blurred. Their peers held the contributors of these trophies in esteem; the stories surrounding the catch were as important as the catch itself.

On July 3, 1899 E. H. Harriman got his bear. After a number of failed hunting excursions during the proceeding month, C. Hart Merriam got word that brown bears were common on Kodiak Island. The hunting party quickly organized itself and excitedly departed in pursuit of their Kadiak bear. As John Burroughs wrote, Here we left a naphtha launch with a party of six men, heavily armed, bent on finding and killing the great Kadiak bear- the largest species of bear in the world, as big as an ox. With the aid of their Russian guide, a sow and cub were driven toward the waiting E. H. Harriman and he dispatched the adult with one shot. Another member of the party shot the cub. Controversial words spread amongst the ship's party. While some cheered at the accomplishment, others like John Muir and zoologist Trevor Kincaid saw the event as brutal and far from the wilderness experience it was intended to be.

Fast forward 100 plus years to August 7, 2001 and the Clipper Odyssey at anchor in Geographic Harbor, a basin at the head of Amalik Bay, across the strait from Kodiak Island. We spent the morning watching brown bears in Geographic Bay and some of us had to wonder, what information were the bears processing as they watched us? Like the 1899 expedition, we too were tourists, albeit with no intention of shooting a bear. But we couldn't help asking, Are we having a subtle, but none-the-less important impact of a different kind?

We set out that morning in ten 18' zodiacs. The full complement of visitors to this remote location was about 100 individuals. The zodiac operators and scholar/naturalists onboard were also eager to see bears and whatever other wildlife we encountered, doing their best to provide the best bear-watching experience for the passengers. But, we weren't the only ones watching bears on this day. We were joined by two float planes that also appeared to be full of bear-watchers. Additionally, there were two private yachts, one appearing to be a smaller expedition vessel, also presumably full of bear-watchers. Finally, joining us in the Bay was a small skiff with two rangers from the National Park Service who were watching the bear-watchers. Their goal was to assess the interactions between people and bears. While it may have been just a typical day of bear-watching on Geographic Bay, to this first-time visitor, ten zodiacs, two sizeable private yachts and two float planes seemed a notable incongruence to some of our party's expectations for a small bay in wilderness Alaska.

Talking with other passengers after we returned, it was clear that our experiences were quite divergent. The zodiacs departed the ship as they were filled, so some arrived in bear country earlier than others. Conversation back onboard seemed to indicate that many of these early arriving visitors had a very positive experience with bears, which appeared to be oblivious to their presence. Early arrivers observed a mother bear nursing, some older cubs in mock battle, some beach-going bears digging for clams. Those who arrived later observed these activities as well. However, on more than one occasion, bears were observed running away from the late-arriving zodiacs as they moved into position beside the other boats. In some instances, it appeared that when one or two zodiacs were standing off the beach where the bears were active, the approach of additional zodiacs resulted in bears altering behaviors that one would expect they would continue to do if we hadn't been there.

In two instances, bears being watched were moving down the beach, running ahead of the zodiacs. Other zodiacs were attracted to the area, presumably by the activity, and positioned themselves ahead of the moving bears. Eventually, these bears arrived at a place on the beach where a steep cliff kept them from heading inland. One bear doubled back, while the other seemed to try to hide in the limited cover at the base of the small cliff. As the zodiacs moved away to look for more bears, the beach-bound bears headed back up the strand to an opening where they sauntered off to the interior of the island. In another case a nursing sow nonchalantly got up, moved higher up on the beach with her cubs close behind, then laid down to continue nursing. The sow was not overly alarmed, but seemed to want more distance between her and the zodiacs. Our presence clearly influenced the activity of these animals on this day, but we debated, so what?

For those onboard who have examined human-wildlife interactions, the so what? question is an important one and brings into focus other similar national examples. We are familiar with images of bear marauding in National Park campsites, Polar Bear being chased from some of the worlds most northern dumps, and Black Bear being tranquilized and removed from New England villages. Bear are not alone. The relationship of White-tailed Deer populations to human communities has been focus of wildlife managers for decades. The relationship of ecotourism, whale-watching, and whale behavior has become a global topic.

Interestingly, the activities surrounding bear watching in the remote Geographic Harbor are very similar to what is commonly seen on whale-watching grounds. First, the density of humans increases as the seaplanes, expedition ships, and yachts, as well as the whale-watching boats all gather in a particular area because of the presence of a watchable species. In whale-watching, newly arrived boats scout for other boats that are on whales, and head for that location knowing that they are a sure to find something interesting for the passengers to watch. Piling-on where vessels all move in close as they arrive, instead of hanging back a distance, results from the natural tendency to get a better look. While the environmental context might change, from the Gray Whales in the Sea of Cortez to Humpbacks in the Atlantic, to brown bear in Geographic Harbor or Yellowstone National Park, humans influence animal behavior. But, so what?

To answer this question, you can look to Alaska itself. The susceptibility of brown bears to human-induced disturbance has been at issue in Alaska since before 1932, when the first guidelines were written to regulate potentially harmful interactions between people and bear (see Citizens Advisory Committee, 2001: the report provides citations of research that document the scope and magnitude of impacts from bear-viewing and other human interactions). Both the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, have some rules already in places like Geographic Harbor, including the minimum approach distance of 50 yards. From these reports, and actions of Alaskan state and US Fish & Wildlife Service managers, it is clear that those charged with brown bear management are concerned by the increase in bear-human interactions, and the role that the Alaska ecotourism industry plays in this process. It was not a coincidence that National Park Service rangers in Geographic Harbor shadowed our zodiacs to observe not only bear behavior, but human behavior as well. In an interesting twist, we, the humans, were the focus of study.

As always, there are two sides to the conversation and the Two Alaskas theme once again emerges: the Alaska that is America's wilderness and frontier, and the Alaska that has been blessed with many natural resources ready to benefit humans and their economies. Bear watching and tourism joins the list that includes ANWR and oil, old growth forests and logging, and Pollack and Stellar's sea lions. In regards to bear, the potential benefits from these wildlife-watching experiences are obvious. It helps researchers better understand the biology, behavior, and ecology of these magnificent creatures. Local and regional economies are supported. Such experiences help build public support for research and conservation, both offshore and onshore. We truly get to know these animals up-close and personal through ecotourism and learn to care about them. None of us who experienced Geographic Harbor's bears for the first time will ever think about bears the same way: we were awestruck.

But, at what cost? Clearly, the vast majority of naturalist guides and ecotourism leaders have a strong environmental ethic and take great pains to insure that their activities have the least environmental impact possible. Most have entered the profession because of their love for the outdoors and its wildlife. Their lives are closely linked to the health of these resources, as are their livelihoods. However, like whale-watch operators, they also are a service industry that aims to provide their customers with the best experience possible. Sometimes, these two ethics conflict, and disturbance thresholds of the animals being watched may be pushed to the limit or exceeded. But, so what? How can we say that this one visit is changing bear behavior? Well, it probably isn't. The real question is, How does our visit, coupled with the hundreds before, coupled with the thousands that will follow in the decades ahead, influence their behavior?

While bears have been much studied, all our questions are not answered, especially those involving impacts related to human contact. Does this disturbance affect the individual bears being watched in terms of their feeding, reproduction, nurturing of their cubs, and other routine activities? In a larger context, does the cumulative effect of bear-watching have any adverse or modifying effect on their behavior and health? Will they modify their movements to avoid busy locations at the height of tourist season? Will it make them more likely to approach human settlements in search of a convenient meal at the dumpster diner? The most important question may be, Are these the outcomes we intended? One response is that the bears will simply get use to humans and their activities. But, that is the very point: do we want them getting use to humans? Over time and with increasing exposure, will these bears come to behave like the bear in heavy traffic areas like faraway Yellowstone Park?

Significantly, a positive outcome of our stop in Geographic Harbor was providing the opportunity for the National Park Service rangers to observe the observers. Studies of this type are timely. Ecotourism along the entire Alaskan coast is increasing, and the crowding of traditional coastal destinations with more people and large cruise ships makes them less desirable to the visitor seeking an Alaska wilderness experience. For those looking to avoid the crowds, remote destinations like Geographic Harbor are of great interest and visitation is becoming more common. A quick look at the ecotourism areas of the Internet finds this region described as the last best place for bears and Katmai National Park, the worlds highest concentration of bears. Who wouldn't want to visit such a wonder of nature?

Significantly, it is these very concerns that have encouraged many in the ecotourism industry to developed their own codes of conduct, and why resource managers promulgate regulations governing these activities. It would be a solid first step for ecotourism operations to develop, in cooperation with brown bear scientists and managers, a code of conduct for bear viewing. Such a code could be modeled after the principles of ethical field practices of the North American Nature Photographers Association, or one of a number of codes of conduct developed for the commercial whale-watching industry. This code should be part of a passenger's onboard education and discussed with them so that they know how to conduct themselves, as well as serving as an aid in evaluating the conduct of their tour operators (Giannecchini 1993). This has the potential to be far more effective than governmental regulations in helping to insure that responsible operators, acting in a protective manner, are preferentially selected by informed ecotourists.

In the final analysis, we celebrate our privileged encounter with the brown bear of Geographic Harbor. But, as Trevor Kincaid and John Muir found over 100 years ago, effective conservation involves constant evaluation and asking hard questions. Shouldn't responsible stewardship include close scrutiny and critical evaluation of how we are shaping the behavior of the animals whose lives we briefly encounter? We hope that Dr. Kincaid and John Muir would agree that we have a responsibility to be sure we don't miss something important during the celebration of our good fortune at having seen, and become a part of the brown bear's world, even if only for one bright Alaska morning.


Citizens Advisory Committee 2001. Kodiak Archipelago Bear Conservation and Management Plan: Public Review Draft.

Giannecchini, J. 1993. Ecotourism: New Partners, New Relationships. Conservation Biology, 7(2):429-432.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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