Southwest Alaska is home to some of the most spectacular wildlife in the world, including majestic brown bears roaming its forests, and especially its rivers and coasts, where they feed on seasonally abundant spawning salmon and rich vegetation.

Brown bears are one of the most iconic animals in Alaska, and they can be found in various regions of the state. However, some of the best places to see them are in the coastal areas of Southcentral Alaska, where they have access to abundant salmon and vegetation. These areas include Katmai National Park & Preserve, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and the Cook Inlet Region. 

Bears are not only a symbol of Alaska’s wilderness but also a valuable asset for the local communities.

According to a study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, bear tourism in Southcentral Alaska generated $34.5 million in 2017 and contributed $10 million in direct wages and benefits to the region, supporting 680 jobs. The study focused on four areas: Katmai National Park & Preserve, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and the Cook Inlet Region. These areas attract thousands of visitors to witness the bears fishing for salmon, playing with their cubs and interacting with each other. The study estimated that each bear in Southcentral Alaska is worth $1.3 million over its lifetime, based on the tourism revenue it generates.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) supports bear tourism as a way to promote conservation and sustainable development in Alaska. WWF works with local partners to protect the habitats and food sources of the bears, as well as to educate tourists and guides on how to minimize their impact and respect the bears’ natural behavior. WWF also advocates for policies that prevent harmful activities such as mining, logging and oil drilling that threaten the bears’ survival.

Brown bear tourism is a valuable source of income and conservation advocacy for the local communities and ecosystems, which have relied largely on subsistence or extractive economic activity. Bear tourism, managed well, offers a valuable and more sustainable option for the local economy.

The economic benefits of bear tourism are not only important for the human population but also for the bear population and the ecosystem they depend on. By creating a demand for bear viewing, tourism provides an incentive for protecting the bears and their habitat from threats such as poaching, mining, logging and climate change.

Tourism helps raise awareness and appreciation for these magnificent creatures among visitors and locals alike. In the words of an Expedition Leader from Nat Hab’s film The Bear Coast: “Before you can care for something, you have to care about it.” Conservation travel builds that kind of connection.

The Ecological Importance of Brown Bears

Brown bears are not only an economic asset for Alaska but also an ecological one. They play a vital role in maintaining the health and balance of the ecosystems they inhabit. By feeding on salmon, they transfer nutrients from the ocean to the land, fertilizing the soil and enriching the vegetation. They also help regulate the population of other animals, such as moose, caribou and rodents, by preying on them or competing with them for food.

Threats Facing Brown Bears

Despite their economic and ecological value, brown bears face many threats in Alaska and elsewhere. One of the most controversial and imminent threats is the proposed Pebble Mine project, which would be located near McNeil River and Lake Iliamna. This project would involve extracting copper, gold and other minerals from a massive open-pit mine, creating tons of toxic waste that could potentially leak into the surrounding watersheds and harm the salmon and other wildlife that depend on them.

mother brown bear and cubs Lake Clark National Park

Lake Clark National Park © Brad Josephs

Mining activities in Southwest Alaska, particularly near the Bear Coast, McNeil River and Bristol Bay, have been a topic of concern due to their potential environmental impacts. Here are some key facts:

Pebble Mine Threat: The plan to establish a large copper and gold mine in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery poses a significant threat to the bears of McNeil River. The associated infrastructure could fragment the best bear habitat in the world and cut off migration routes. The mine could also destroy the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, which have supported the peoples and ecosystems of Southwest Alaska for tens of thousands of years.

Bristol Bay: Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. The proposed Pebble Mine project would directly impact this fishery, jeopardizing thousands of American jobs, a cultural tradition of subsistence, and a robust sport-fishing and tourism economy. Two out of three Alaskans oppose the Pebble Mine and support protections for Bristol Bay.

Economic Impact: The salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay support the equivalent of nearly 10,000 full-time jobs and create $1.5 billion in annual economic output.

Environmental Concerns: The proposed Pebble Mine project would entail mining a pit over a mile long, a mile wide, and 657 feet deep, destroying nearly 3,500 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds and 81 miles of salmon streams. This does not include the thousands more acres that would be fragmented, dewatered and covered with dust from the mine.

Legal Actions: In January 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final decision to block the proposed Pebble Mine due to concerns about its environmental impact on Bristol Bay’s aquatic ecosystem. However, the State of Alaska is seeking to revive the Pebble Mine project by going directly to the Supreme Court.

Mining activities in Southwest Alaska pose imminent danger. It’s crucial to balance economic development with the preservation of the region’s unique ecosystems and the livelihoods of the local communities.

Many local residents, conservation groups, Indigenous communities and tourism operators—even the United States Environmental Protection Agency—have opposed such projects for years, arguing they jeopardize the livelihoods and cultures of people who rely on the natural resources of Southwest Alaska. 

Brown bears face threats from development, logging, climate change and extractive industries such as the Pebble Mine. Conservation efforts are needed to ensure their survival.

Katmai National Park mother brown bear and cubs Katmai National Park

Katmai National Park © Brad Josephs

Can brown bears and ecotourism coexist?

Yes! Brown bears and ecotourism can coexist, and there are several examples of this around the world. In fact, ecotourism can play a crucial role in bear conservation efforts.

  • Bear Viewing: Ecotourism often involves non-consumptive wildlife viewing, which means observing animals in their natural habitats without causing harm or disturbance.
  • Economic Benefits: Ecotourism can provide economic benefits to local communities, creating jobs and generating income. This can reduce pressures to exploit natural resources, such as through hunting or habitat destruction.
  • Conservation Funding: Revenue from ecotourism can be used to fund conservation efforts, including those aimed at protecting bear populations and their habitats.
  • Education and Awareness: Ecotourism can also raise awareness among tourists and local communities about the importance of bear conservation. This can lead to increased support for conservation efforts and more responsible behavior.

Guidelines for responsible practices have been developed to ensure that ecotourism activities are carried out in a way that minimizes impact on the environment and maximizes benefits for local communities.

Successful Bear Conservation Efforts

Ecotourism has been instrumental in several successful bear conservation efforts worldwide. Here are a few examples:

Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia: In 2009, the government of British Columbia announced a conservation plan for the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the most comprehensive of its kind in North America. This victory followed a 10-year campaign and is one of the longest in Greenpeace history.

Andean Bear, Colombia: The Andean bear, also known as the spectacled bear, is South America’s only bear species and one of the most iconic mammals of the tropical Andes. As part of the GROW Colombia project, scientists are using advanced genomics to help recover the Andean bear and preserve Colombia’s biodiversity while making an economic and social impact.

Brown Bears, Alaska: In Alaska, ecotourism often involves non-consumptive wildlife viewing, which includes bear viewing. This has become a popular form of ecotourism in places like McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Katmai National Park. These initiatives have not only contributed to the growth of Alaska’s tourism industry but also promoted the principles of sustainability and conservation.

These initiatives highlight how ecotourism can contribute to bear conservation efforts, benefiting both the local communities and the bears themselves.

Nat Hab travelers photograph brown bears ecotourism bear conservation alaska

© Brad Josephs

How You Can Support Bears & Local Communities

If you are interested in supporting brown bear tourism in Southwest Alaska, there are many ways you can do so. Here are some suggestions:

  • Donate to or volunteer with organizations that work to protect brown bears and their habitat in Alaska, such as Friends of McNeil River, Defenders of Wildlife or The Nature Conservancy.
  • Educate yourself and others about the importance and value of brown bears and their ecosystem.
  • Speak up against projects or policies that threaten brown bears or their habitat in Alaska or elsewhere.
  • Travel with Nat Hab to one of the destinations mentioned above and book a guided tour with a reputable operator who follows ethical and safety guidelines for bear viewing.
  • Support Local Economies: Wherever you travel, try to support local businesses and services. This not only provides economic benefits to the community but also often results in a more authentic and enriching travel experience.
  • Advocate for Sustainable Policies: Use your voice to advocate for policies that promote sustainable tourism. This could involve supporting legislation that protects natural and cultural resources or advocating for the rights of local communities.
  • Participate in Conservation Efforts: Many destinations offer opportunities for tourists to participate in conservation efforts. This could involve activities like tree planting, wildlife monitoring or beach cleanups.
  • Choose Sustainable Options: When planning your travels, choose providers committed to sustainable practices. This could include eco-friendly hotels, tour operators that respect local cultures and environments, and transportation options that minimize carbon emissions.
  • Share your experiences and photos of brown bear tourism with your friends and family on social media or other platforms.
travelers view grizzly brown bears in alaska

© Court Whelan

The Friends of McNeil River is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and its magnificent brown bears. Their main priorities and activities include: 

Preservation of the sanctuary’s bears and their habitat: They are concerned about threats such as development, habitat destruction, poorly designed “enhancement” projects and noise pollution.

Education: They aim to educate the public about the bears and their habitat. Visitors who have been privileged to walk among the “people-neutral” bears come away with a new understanding of brown bears.

Advocacy: They strive to have a voice in the future of the sanctuary. They formed to address problems such as the threat of development and habitat destruction.

Addressing Threats: They are actively involved in addressing major threats to the bears, such as the proposed Pebble Mine, which could fragment bear habitat, destroy crucial denning areas and eliminate the salmon runs of Bristol Bay.

WWF has also played a major role in defending the brown bears and other wildlife of Bristol Bay by collecting hundreds of thousands of public comments from activists on why Pebble Mine is too risky for the region’s brown bears, salmon and people.

Every action counts. By making informed choices and advocating for sustainable practices, you can contribute to the global effort to promote responsible tourism.

Nat Hab Alaska Bear Camp Lake Clark National Park bear conservation ecotourism

© Bill Gent & Diana Russler

Join Nat Hab’s Alaska Bear-Viewing Trips

Nat Hab has been operating bear viewing tours in Alaska since 1987; itineraries support local businesses and conservation efforts, including WWF’s Alaska program. Choose from several options that cater to different preferences and budgets. For example, you can join a small-group expedition to Katmai National Park, where you can watch dozens of bears fishing for salmon at the famous Brooks Falls. Or you can opt for a more intimate encounter at Lake Clark National Park, where you can stay at a remote lodge and observe bears grazing on sedge grasses and digging for clams. 

By choosing bear tourism, you are not only enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but also supporting the economy and conservation of Southwest Alaska. You are helping to preserve the beauty and diversity of this region for future generations of humans and bears alike. Whichever option you choose, you can be sure that you will have a memorable and meaningful experience that will enrich your life and help protect Alaska’s precious wildlife.

Brown bear tourism is more than just an awe-inspiring activity; it is a way to connect with nature, support local communities and contribute to conservation. Brown bear tourism is more than just a business; it is a way of life for many people in Southwest Alaska. It is also a way of protecting one of the most valuable and vulnerable treasures of Alaska: its brown bears.