For years, naturalists and wildlife photographers have flocked to McNeil River and Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park for some of the finest wild bear viewing in North America.
But beginning in June 2011, a new option will put Kodiak Island visitors in the middle of one of the thickest concentrations of the world's heftiest brown bears.
The O'Malley River area on the southwest side of Kodiak Island will open to bear viewers in groups of 10 or fewer beginning June 25 and extending late into September. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is in the process of selecting a concessionaire to run the operation.
"We'd expect that folks coming to O'Malley would see quite a number of bears," said refuge manager Gary Wheeler. "There have been times we've documented 60 bears or more fishing on O'Malley at one time. It's certainly one of the highest -- if not the highest -- density on the refuge."
But while O'Malley bear density may be comparable to the more famous Alaska sites, there are differences too. Perhaps the biggest is the lack of waterfalls at O'Malley. At McNeil and Brooks, salmon collect in pools beneath the falls and bears pack in for easy pickings. At O'Malley, the bears tend to spread out along the stream.
O'Malley's operation will be similar to McNeil's, with small guided groups on a 12-foot-by-20-foot viewing platform to be built this summer.
"What we want to do," said state biologist Larry Van Daele of Kodiak, "is learn what we can from both of those places -- with McNeil being a very limited government-run operation where bears always come first, and Brooks Camp offering industrial-strength bear viewing with very high volume."
Wheeler and Van Daele agree it will take a while to work out any kinks in Kodiak's new operation. Those may include:
• Getting feeding brown bears on O'Malley used to a summer-long presence of humans. "It will take a little time for bears to become habituated," Wheeler said.
• The fact that hunting is legal nearby. Bear-viewing season will end Sept. 30 and hunting doesn't start until Oct. 25. "Still," Van Daele said, "that's going to be a challenge ethically. How can you teach bears that humans are a neutral part of the environment part of the year and something to be feared another part of the year?"
• A recent decline in bear numbers because of lower returns of the red salmon they're chasing. "As salmon runs recover," Wheeler said, "the number of bears will increase."
Old bears may remember the days humans watched them.
Before 1992, the O'Malley River area was open to unregulated public use, including bear-viewing guides. That year, the refuge decided that unregulated use was harming feeding bears and closed the area except for a highly structured bear-viewing program sponsored by the refuge. Two years later, a private guide service operated the program but a legal challenge to the way the contractor was selected shut the program down.
"What they're doing now is redressing a wrong," said renowned wildlife photographer Tom Walker. "That spot was a bear-viewing site for decades -- until about 15 years ago when the refuge manager at the time thought non-consumptive uses were incompatible to consumptive uses.
"Then it was slammed shut."
It remained shut until 1999, when the process of updating the Kodiak Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan began and demands to reopen the area flowed in.
"We analyzed the likely impacts of several different viewing program alternatives," wrote Brian Glaspell, visitor services manager of the refuge, in the Federal Register last month. "That research showed structured bear viewing could occur at O'Malley River with minimal impacts to bears."
But not everyone is happy.
"I wasn't aware that the Feds decided to create a zoo at O'Malley," said Kodiak master guide Tim Booch. "My experience with any public input on the subject was to witness a large majority of participants opposed to any organized brown bear viewing similar to McNeil. I don't know ... I thought it was against the law to habituate bears."
John Schoen of Audubon Alaska offered qualified support.
"There's room for bear viewing there," he said. "But I think we don't have to make every single bear-viewing place a McNeil River or Katmai."
The 2-million-acre refuge includes about two-thirds of Kodiak Island as well as Uganik and Ban Islands and part of Afognak. About 3,000 brown bears call it home.
Glaspell estimates that nearly 150 people will visit O'Malley each year to watch bears, making the operation smaller than either Brooks or McNeil.
Even though visitation declined 16 percent last year at Brooks, 7,646 visitors showed up, according to Roy Wood, chief of interpretation at Katmai. The more tightly controlled McNeil issued 252 bear-viewing permits this year, according to Fish and Game.
The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 to protect brown bears and other wildlife, and no spot on the refuge is more than 15 miles from the ocean.
The Karluk drainage, which includes the O'Malley River, supports the largest red salmon runs in Kodiak. Last year, more then 330,000 reds passed through the Karluk weir, about half the 669,000 counted in 2005.
And it's possible an influx of humans will drive some bears away. Former refuge manager Jay Bellinger said a lot of bears didn't habituate during the bear-viewing program of the 1990s and moved out of the area.
"We didn't realize how many until we lost the bear-viewing program and got a chance to see bear use with no people around," he said. "There was a significant increase."
But Van Daele said there's no denying the growing popularity of bear viewing in Alaska and believes O'Malley offers a chance to do it right.
"We're looking at a privately run operation with as much quality as McNeil offers.
"Above all," he said, "the ethic is that people are just visitors in the bears' backyard."
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.