Part I of an occasional series
Bear management is a constant challenge at Mendenhall - and a featured attraction.
By an accident of geography and ecology, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center’s visitor facilities sit precisely astride a major movement corridor for black bears, as they travel from the ridge line of Thunder Mountain behind the center down to the Steep Creek riparian woodlands next to Mendenhall Lake. This means that our site might as well have been built in the middle of I-80, as far as the bears are concerned. It’s routine for bears to cross the access road, amble up major trails and meander through crowded parking lots.
It didn’t take long for people to notice this phenomenon, and now Mendenhall Glacier is known for much more than being a gorgeous wall of ice - it’s become the single most popular bear viewing site in the state of Alaska. Tourists and locals alike crowd the boardwalks of Steep Creek trail to catch a glimpse of bears in their natural habitat.
That leaves us rangers to act as shepherds to an unruly flock of ursine residents - and play traffic cops for overeager human visitors.
Picture a bear unconcernedly munching away on cottonwood flowers… while 50 visitors crowd around the base of the tree, shutting off its escape routes. Or a bear trying to get down to the creek, faced with a maze of access ramps and people on the hillside. Imagine five bears crowded around a 250-yard stretch of stream banks, with hundreds of visitors less than 20 feet away. That’s routine at Mendenhall Glacier.
Now that the sockeye salmon have begun their spawning migration back to Steep Creek, the trickle of bears feeding on cottonwoods and horsetail is about to become a raging torrent - after all, a summer feast of salmon is the difference between life and death for hibernating bears.
What we do at Mendenhall Glacier on a daily basis is essentially unique. No, we’re not the only place that has up-close bear viewing… but we are the only place that has up-close bear viewing and 500,000 visitors a year. Yet all this happens safely, in a place that has never had a recorded bear attack on a human in 50 years of FS management. As bear season rises to a crescendo, I hope to explore the teamwork, training and techniques that make this possible.