As visitors steadily increase at Katmai National Park and Preserve, famed for its salmon-feasting brown bears, officials are rolling out a permitting program for access to an off-trail area frequented by anglers, bear-viewing groups and photographers.
Getting into or near the river in the park’s Brooks Camp Developed Area is riskier than staying on one of the viewing platforms or walking along its trails. Park officials say the permitting program will help give visitors the information needed to be safe around the bears. Currently, access to that off-trail area isn’t regulated or limited.
To access the Brooks River Corridor, an area within the Brooks Camp Developed Area that includes the river itself and 50 yards on either side, a $6 permit will be needed from July 1 to Oct. 31 — the time when salmon are spawning.
Permits are not needed for the trails, boardwalks or viewing platforms within the Brooks Camp area.
The Alaska Peninsula park, home to the internet-famous bears of Fat Bear Week, has a population of some 2,200 bears, which can be seen snatching up salmon during the summer months, hustling to eat as much as they can before hibernation.
Park officials had been discussing the idea of a permitting system for years, said Amber Kraft, interpretation and education program manager at Katmai.
The area had to briefly close twice last summer, with so many bears and people in the same space, as a way to allow bears access to their food source in the river.
“Bear populations and human presence has been steadily increasing at levels that pose an inherent risk to visitor and resources,” said Catherine Dalrymple, Naknek District ranger.
The number of people visiting Brooks Camp has increased by thousands in recent years. Still, bear-human incidents in the Brooks Camp area are rare. In 2018, two young bears “pawed” people in the area in separate incidents, neither resulting in injuries, and park officials said at the time that it was the first physical contact between bears and humans there in two decades.
Also, in an incident a park spokesperson deemed “unprecedented” in 2018, three men left a viewing platform in the Brooks Falls viewing area and waded into the river while bears fished in it, violating park regulations. None of the men were hurt, but the three were recently charged for getting too close to the bears and were sentenced to fines and prison time.
At a less-visited, more remote location in the park, where bears aren’t as used to people as they are at Brooks Camp, a man was swatted by a bear and sustained a minor forearm injury in 2021.
Everyone who visits Brooks Camp gets a bear orientation, but there’s specific information needed for moving off the platforms and into the river, where it’s more dangerous. Humans need to be predictable to the bears, Dalrymple said.
There are certain regulations about how close people can get to the bears, and without more explanation, people often get into trouble, she said.
“By requiring a permit, it allows us to give a little bit more in-depth information about the rules and regulations,” Dalrymple said.
There’s no cap on the number of permits issued, and the new system lets park management track how many people are accessing the area. Each permit lasts seven days and can include as many as six people.
The bears have “only a few months to get all of the calories, all of the food that they need to sustain themselves,” Kraft said. “And as humans, we are here visiting them in their homes. And so we want to make sure that what we are doing to recreate doesn’t impede on their survival.”