I just returned from a 5 day adventure to, in, and around Denali National Park & Preserve! It was an AMAZING trip, and I was so impressed with the National Parks Service staff, and their ways of managing the (people of the) park. I have probably 10 different things I want write just about this long weekend, and so I'm going to break it down into different entries.
Before I get into it though, I want to mention that the Upload Gods of Blogger are still holding out against me. I've tried again several times to upload the otter videos from the Funny River, but I am unable to connect to "fast enough" internet apparently. Eventually I will get them posted! That otter has been hanging out at the weir now for a week (naughty but adorable), and I still haven't gotten a camera trap hit on him. I can't believe it. I DID get a huge personal hit though, on my Cuddeback. I'll share eventually :)
So, my time at DNPP was amazing. A dear friend of mine, Katie, flew into Anchorage and met me for our journey North by train. She works for an airline, so she flew for free! Lucky her!
I was so excited to share Alaska with someone from home, as well as experience Interior Alaska, and a National Park I'd never been to. I have MANY amazing memories and wildlife sightings that were great, but something not-so-great happened where I was staying, and it's such a big part of my experience at Denali, that I had to share it. I wanted to get the bad news out of the way first so I can then share lovely stories of "The Big 5" and other the DNPP players later.
Everywhere you go in Alaska, people are "bear aware". I took a Department of the Interior training called Bear Aware, required for field work. Alaska is home to all 3 species of North American bears: black (Ursus americanus), brown/grizzly/Kodiak (Ursus arctos), and polar (Ursus maritimus), and though Alaska is a huge state, there are over 700,000 people calling AK home. Bears and people have run-ins all the time. The range of run-ins include seeing sign left behind, distant viewing, close viewing, and attacks, sometimes fatal.
In DNPP, they have never had a human fatality caused by a resident bear (brown or black). They do an extremely good job of keeping the hoards of visitors confined to tour or shuttle buses (no personal vehicles, only few exceptions), and keep food and garbage well secured so that bears do not become habituated and rewarded by either direct or indirect human contact.
Blurry, sorry, but I'm sure you get the idea. These signs were posted at DNPP everywhere people could go.
I could go on and on about how impressed I was by these policies...but this story revolves around irresponsible actions by the owner of the hostel we stayed in.
We chose to stay in a hostel for several reasons: cheap, convenient, and part of the adventure. Everything we read and saw online, and the emails we received from staff there, promised a good, safe, clean stay. And for the most part, it was just that. I am extremely pleased with how well our trip went, and if it wasn't for the following story, I'd go back and stay at that hostel in a heartbeat.
Upon arriving, Katie and I IMMEDIATLY noticed that the dumpster out front of the check-in building, was not bear proof, which was so surprising to both of us. We were in the thick of bear country. Even the plastic bottle recycling receptacles at the park were bear proof! It left our minds though, as we had traveled long and far over the previous days, and I honestly thought to myself "I guess if it was an issue, there would be a bear proof dumpster..." Then we learned that there was an "overflow" refrigerator outside, in case the one inside the kitchen became full with guests food items. And THEN...we overheard another guest being told by a hostel employee that it was "ok" to keep food in the wall tents (one of which we were staying in...).
At best, I would love to be considered a baby biologist (not someone who studies babies...but in training). I strive to be a critical thinker, skeptical, science-minded, I love nature and the environment, and I am open minded. I have observed these things in others in the profession, that I admire, and I think it's the recipe that makes someone able to study wildlife and connect their findings with the "layman". So please keep that in mind while you continue to read. For good measure I supposed there is a bit of "emotional tourist" and "bear lover" thrown in there as well, it's only fair that I admit that. But I hope the more logical side of my thoughts shows through.
Several days went by of early mornings, long days, hanging out in the park, coming back to the hostel late, eating dinner and passing out. One night, on our way back from the park to the hostel (they provided a free shuttle), one of the staff members alerted us that a lone black bear (this is important) had been seen around mile 226 I think of the Parks Highway. The hostel was at 224, so we were advised to be wary and alert, and she reminded us all of the protocol when coming face to face with a black bear (it's different for a brown bear!). Some of us seemed mildly concerned, some of us (me), silently hoped that the bear would wander by so that I could see my favorite animal IN Alaska.
They posted this sign on the kitchen door, making sure everyone was aware of the bear that had been spotted.
Lo and behold, the next morning, around 6:30 am, one couple left the kitchen just ahead of us to wait for the shuttle outside. Within a minute, they came rushing back in, screaming about a bear in the dumpster. Having worked in the Adirondack Mountains, and camped many summers there, a bear in a dumpster is old news to me. But after questioning them briefly about the bears response to them, which was a raised head above the edge of the dumpster and looking at them and then went back to eating, I asked one of the hostel employees who had just entered what was going to happen. Everyone in the kitchen was really excited, nervous, and surprised it seems, that a bear would dare come so close. This is the stuff that the Rangers warn you about, but doesn't happen! The hostel employee said that the owner was on his way to "take care of it". Being naive of what this actually meant (at the summer camp I worked at, we banged pans and screen doors to chase the BBs away), I grabbed my camera and headed out to the dumpster.
I have respect for wildlife. I understand the personal space many of them require to feel safe, but I am bold. Perhaps too bold for my own good. I've never been hurt by a wild animal, I just am fascinated and always want a good look, as was described in my Little Miss Quill Piggy entry. I gave the bear a wide berth, at least a 100 yards, and walked upwind of him/her so that I was not surprising it. I was able to get a good view atop the road, it was on a little ridge, and watched the bear be bad. Munching on garbage, easily accessible in that NON BEAR PROOF dumpster.
I snapped the following pictures.
And then I decided, for whatever reason, to take a video. I will not be sharing the video as it is disturbing to watch, and may/may not be involved in this case. I honestly thought that a warning shot or non lethal means would be used to shoo the bear away. Short story, the owner pulled up (had to have seen me standing on the road with a camera), got out of his truck. Threw a rock at the bear. Bear popped up out of the dumpster, and the owner shot it 3 times until it was down and deceased.
I have never seen a wild animal die. In fact, the only animal I watched die before was my beloved childhood dog of 14 years when I made the decision to have him euthanized due to old age and illness. It was traumatic. This was equally traumatic.
Let me get the emotional tourist out: black bears are my favorite. They make me think of summers as a kid camping in the ADKs, summers working at camp introducing city kids to large wildlife, college where I got to handle and study them. They are a beautiful animal, cute cubs, majestic adults. It's sad to watch an animal like that die at the hands of a human.
Logical biologist thoughts: this was preventable. How irresponsible is it for someone who has a BUSINESS that invites GUESTS in bear country to not have bear proof receptacles out in the open? How is this OK? The entrance to DNNP is 13-14 miles by road from the hostel, that's nothing for a bear to travel (especially a male), as I mentioned it was alone..which makes me think it was male. A female should have young right now! I keep thinking "what ifs"...what if the owner had bear proofed his property? That bear may still be alive. What if that bear attempted to enter a tent? What if someone got hurt? What if someone DIED? It's bad enough the bear had to die, let alone a guest? I'm disgusted, appalled, shocked, and saddened to have witnessed this act between man and bear.
As soon as the bear was down, I left. I was overcome with many emotions, I grabbed Katie and we got in the shuttle to head to the park. I couldn't talk about it, I didn't want to talk about it, and I especially didn't want to talk about it around hostel people. Several people of whom I've told this story to up here in AK, have dismissed me with "It's Alaska, there are tons of bears here". I get that, I understand that bears are not endangered, threatened, and even protected (on the Kenai Peninsula, there is an open season on BBs year round)! Another detail of the story is that this bear probably was human-habituated. The night or two before, several miles down the road it apparently entered a restaurant. While people were working in the kitchen, they had the door propped open and this curious, hungry bear wandered in. They screamed, the bear freaked, and ran out. To my knowledge, and I'd be VERY willing to listen to other accounts of this bear, this bear did not exhibit any kind of human directed aggression. It was simply drawn into human establishment by the smell and reward of food and garbage. This bear was probably going to have to be dispatched eventually, due to it's boldness. I understand that, but I just wish THIS event had been prevented.
Since all of this has happened, I got in touch with a wildlife biologist that is in charge of the grizzly and black bear management of DNPP. She couldn't do anything to help me, but I was comforted to know that she felt similarly to how I do. She's worked for the Park for 20+ years, mostly managing people with a side of bear. She said this instance is one of many, of people acting like idiots. Up here, we are truly in the bear's country. We are the guests, and it's only right to respect and anticipate their actions. We are the large-brained organisms calling the major shots. She advised that I contact the Wildlife State Troopers, and tell my story. I wasn't able to do so until I returned to work yesterday, due to travel and hit-and-miss cell reception.
I've been told that the owner of the hostel has been cited with taking a bear out of season. The trooper that is on this case was off yesterday, but he will hopefully be in contact with me soon. I should feel relief that the owner was cited, but it's not enough for me. I'm still way pissed off about this! There's probably not much I can do, but I will be writing a letter to the Better Business Bureau and CC him in on it. I know it won't amount to much, but afford me some mental relief.
I will leave this experience at the hostel as a learning experience. It's important for myself, as well as other budding biologists, to be aware and cognizant of the death of animals. This will not be the last time I deal with a problem bear, but it further ignites me to continue with my studies and work. I'm not looking to become a PhD with books and books published in my name, but if I can contribute a small chunk of what is unknown, then my life will have been worthwhile.