Story by Mary Lane Gallagher
WWU graduate student Ian Gill spent five weeks watching grizzly bears gorge themselves on salmon this summer in an Alaskan wilderness version of an all-youcan-eat buffet.
Gill, a student at Huxley College of the Environment, had a coveted bearwatching spot at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, where he collected data on how much fish the bears caught and ate as the chum returned to their spawning grounds on the Cook Inlet.
“This is the largest naturally occurring seasonal congregation of brown bears in the world,” says Gill, who worked with Larry Aumiller, the former longtime manager of the sanctuary, “so it’s an incredible chance to do this kind of research.”
As the chum swim upstream through the falls, the bears perch, swim and lie in their path, using a variety of “fishing” techniques to catch their prey. Some squat in the falls and wait for salmon to literally bump into them; others perch on ledges near channels and swat the salmon as they go by; others swim in the water at the base of the falls like skin divers, grabbing prey under water as the salmon wait their turns to proceed upstream.
“This is one of the most pristine wildlife viewing areas in the world,” Gill says. “To even get to the viewing platform, you have to win a permit lottery.”
Since the lottery program began in 1975, he says, no human has ever been harmed by a bear at McNeil River.
“Because these bears have never been fed, never been shot at or molested in any way,” Gill says, “they view observers as neutral entities.”