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Bridging the Worlds of Bears and People
Like the salmon that come to spawn and the bears that come to fish for them, summer brings Larry Aumiller back to McNeil River.
Aumiller is the manager of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. For 28 years, he's spent his summers at the sanctuary, working with visitors from all over the world who come to see this unique concentration of brown bears.
In May, Aumiller left his wife and 6-year-old daughter in Anchorage and flew 180 miles southwest to McNeil River. He's prepared to see some familiar characters on the river this season - such as Albert, Elvis, Rex, Jughead, Willem and Monkey Face -brown bears he's come to know and recognize.
"We've been seeing some of these guys for 15 or 20 years," Aumiller said.
The bears at McNeil River are not tagged or marked, and Aumiller and the other two sanctuary staff, as well as any biologists who come to study the bears, must learn to distinguish them by their appearance and behavior. A few years ago Aumiller counted 144 different bears in the sanctuary area.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game grants permits for several hundred people a year to visit the McNeil River sanctuary, but millions have seen images of McNeil River bears. The sanctuary, and especially the viewing area at the McNeil River falls, offers unparalleled opportunities to photograph and videotape brown bears fishing in their natural environment. Images of McNeil River bears fishing are ubiquitous.
Aumiller has taken a number of photographs himself, and in the early 1990s he contributed photographs to a book on McNeil River by Tom Walker, "River of Bears." The project combined several of Aumiller's strengths, working with people, bears, and art.
Aumiller, 59, grew up in Colorado. He loved art and the outdoors, and in the late 1960s he was interested in a career in commercial art. Shortly after he earned his bachelor's degree in art he was drafted into the army. The military sent him to the Pentagon, where he applied his talents to cartography.
He moved to Anchorage in the early 1970s when the community was half the size it is today. He studied to become a high school art and photography teacher and took seasonal jobs as a wildlife technician. Before long field work with Fish and Game extended into the fall and spring, and he traded his art students for moose, sea lions, wolves, wolverines and bears.
In the off-season, Aumiller took classes in ornithology and biology. He traveled in Central America, and spent several winters as a caretaker for remote Alaska lodges.
Aumiller was involved with a variety of projects for Fish and Game in addition to his summer job at McNeil. He worked with walrus on Round Island and spent four months on Marmot Island, an important Steller sea lion haul out at the north end of the Kodiak Archipelago.
Wildlife biologist Jim Faro worked with Aumiller in the early 1970s on a bear tagging and capture project around King Salmon. Faro was also studying bears at McNeil and he saw first hand the area was in need of management.
The sanctuary was created in 1967, but the area had been closed to hunting since 1955. Although the area was protected, it wasn't managed in a coordinated fashion.
"There were people camping everywhere, bears were getting food, it was really unorganized," Aumiller said.
The numbers of visitors was growing, and Faro said bears were beginning to avoid the area.
"There were no controls," Faro said. "People were going on both sides of the falls, basically harassing the bears, and we saw the bears starting to abandon the falls."
In 1973 Faro devised the permit system for visitors, and in 1975 Fish and Game began staffing the sanctuary. Faro, who retired in 1997 and now lives in Sitka, tapped Aumiller for the job.
"I'd seen how he handled himself - he's got very good people skills, he's a sensitive type who would recognize the needs of the bears," Faro said. "The program is built around people adjusting their behavior to the bears. That's a foreign concept to some. A lot of people have a problem with the idea that bears tell us how to run the sanctuary. Larry is the interpreter. It works, and he's improved on it. When it comes to reading and understanding how bears behave, there nobody in the world that has his finesse."
The bears at McNeil are habituated to people, but not food conditioned. Habituation, the lessening of response based on repeated benign interactions, means the bears are not averse to people.
"These bears are not averse to people but do not associate people with food, that's a key issue," Aumiller said. "Cubs can learn in one day - they key in from mom. They're curious, they stare at you, but they're pretty jumpy and excited about all the other bears - and the people. If mom is stressed they get stressed. They're getting the feel of all the other bears. Imagine coming out of the den and you've never seen any other living critters. They hang with mom- right up against her- they want to be under her or on her."
The early part of the season has its own dynamic, which shifts as the bears become used to one another and more fish come in.
"June is an adjustment period - typically two adult males will not tolerate each other within 100 yards - that's too close," he said. "McNeil River can be special; they get 5 or 10 feet apart and ignore each other."
"Last summer I saw 27 big males lined up shoulder to shoulder, all facing into the river.
But in June they are still breeding so the dynamic is different. When the first fish come the resource is more limited and they're not so tolerant."
Aumiller said 40 or 50 bears can be concentrated at the McNeil River falls fishing.
"If one bear moves it sets off a chain reaction that affects many," he said. "They have an elaborate body language, they're very aware of each other and where they are."
Aumiller said the bears' "personal space" varies on their sex, age, what they are doing and how long they've been at the same location. He said when their spaces touch they do something - at least one of them will - shy away, hold ground, rush the other - and usually the smaller bear defers. Difficulty arises when bears are the same size, age or status.
"It varies from bear to bear," he said. "A mother with cubs is more aware of things that are further away. And the terrain affects behavior to some degree. I've watched so many bears interact. If I surprise a bear at 80 feet I'm not concerned - at 30 feet I'd be more concerned."
Faro has kept a close eye on the McNeil River sanctuary over the years. He's impressed with Aumiller's work.
"Larry has the ability to read bears," Faro said. "He got a unique set of skills, truly unique. He's fine-tuned (the sanctuary) and subtly made changes that substantially enhance the public's ability to view bears.
The permit system is set up so that every four days, a new group of 10 visitors flies in. The visitors camp a couple miles away from the viewing area at McNeil River falls, and food is stored and prepared in a cook cabin.
State wildlife biologist Polly Hessing of Douglas studied bears at McNeil River for nine seasons. She later served for five years as the on-site manager of Round Island, and said she learned a great deal from Aumiller.
"I think what makes Larry very unusual - he has a big view of the world and his place in it, and he understands that working on one little piece helps the whole," she said. "He's certainly affected me in terms of translating the natural world for people. A lot has to do with visitors respecting the area, the flora and fauna, by knowing something about it."
Aumiller said he's reminded every day what a special place he's in.
"People tell us every day, in different ways, 'This is the experience of a lifetime,'" he said. "I can't take it for granted. Every four days, when a group leaves, I'm reminded. People tell us it's the best trip they've ever done. They can't believe it can be like this. It's very gratifying."
For information on McNeil River visit our McNeil River State Game Sanctuary web page.
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