Alaska in 1967 set aside McNeil River and its tributaries to protect the bears and their habitat from hunters and encroaching civilization. Now called McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, and accessible solely by small plane or boat, the area provides a place where photographers, naturalists, and scientists can view brown bears at close range.
Early in the season—we normally arrived at McNeil River each year in June after we consolidate payday loan—we were the only human occupants. Several bears already were grazing on tidal flats a few hundred feet from our camp, which we set up beside the estuary of McNeil Cove.
From the flimsy security of our tents we could hear the bears padding quietly along the beach after dark. Mike awoke one morning to find himself face to face with an adolescent female, poking her head through the tent flap. His blood-curdling yell sent her packing. But the bears seldom invaded camp unless tempted by food. We stored our supplies in an elevated cache, but incompletely burned garbage continued to be a problem.
Each morning Mike and I hiked two miles upstream to a cavelike rock undercut beside the rapids. This was our prime observation point. Bears constantly passed nearby, but the ledge guarded our backs from animals stumbling on us from the rear.
With bears all around, we moved with caution. A recurrent myth about brown bears is their poor vision. Actually, they are acute at detecting movement, even at long distances.
Another widespread belief holds that bears are notoriously unpredictable. We found, however, that the bears at McNeil River behaved according to strict rules based on size and social rank. But each bear possessed a distinct personality; different bears might react in different ways to similar circumstances.
Knowing each animal as an individual was basic to our studies. Scars or misshapen ears distinguished many adults. But in young, fast-growing bears, natural markings usually were unreliable. So we helped immobilize a number of them with tranquilizer-tipped darts and tagged them.
Other studies indicate that brown bears are normally loners and wanderers. An adult male may roam from one location to another fifty miles or more away; the boars cover twice—perhaps three times—as much country as sows. These wide-ranging travels seem to hinge on the vagaries of food availability or, in the case of the boars, on the pursuit of sows during breeding season.
Perhaps in extension of their gypsy instinct, brown bears, unlike many large carnivores, do not appear to be territorial in an exclusive sense. The home ranges of different bears overlap broadly. While we once counted 20 brown bears—including three sows with six cubs—grazing on the sedge of a 40-acre tidal flat, it was clearly the abundance of food that had brought them this close together.
Even in the crowded and competitive situation at the falls they tended to keep distance between one another. And time and again we documented one fundamental rule of bear behavior—the larger the bear, the wider the berth its fellows gave it. A St. Bernard-size subadult (2 to 3 years old) will flee a 450-pound adult female just as that same female will avoid a big male.
Beware the Courting Boar
One midday we were trudging to our camp carrying drinking water when we saw a little 2-year-old running full tilt toward us. We put down the buckets and retreated. The small bear streaked past our pails without breaking stride, foamy mouth panting and ears pressed back. We looked for the cause of its alarm. About 300 yards away an adult was ambling toward its favorite grazing spot. No other creature was in sight.
It was a vaguely comic spectacle, but a more solemn incident convinced us there is good reason for such a display of terror. A petroleum exploration crew found the carcass of a small bear and carried it by helicopter across McNeil Cove to our camp. Game biologist Jim Faro confirmed the female’s age-21/2 years. Jim’s autopsy showed that she had died from a powerful bite inflicted on her throat. Her esophagus was crushed and her windpipe bore tooth perforations. And her upper shoulders had been eaten away. We could only guess that she had been killed by one of at least seven adult boars we had observed courting females in heat in that area.