Only a lucky few are allowed each summer to get up close and personal with the bears on Alaska's McNeil River, but now they have a much bigger audience thanks to a remote video camera trained on their every move.
In something akin to the "Big Brother" reality television show, the camera pans the falls where the bears gather to brawl over salmon, cool off in the falls, sunbathe on the rocks and fatten up for the long, Alaska winter.
The 114,400-acre McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in a roadless area about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage is one of the best places in the world to view brown bears, especially for a few peak weeks each summer when dozens at a time show up to snack on salmon.
The bear cam is turned on from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. and has eight presets to zoom in on where the bears are likely to be at any given hour. During the afternoon, an interpreter at the Pratt Museum in Homer controls the solar-powered camera to get the best views.
Mike O'Meara, project manager for the small museum in the resort town across Cook Inlet from the sanctuary, expects 20,000 museum visitors to use the bear cam this summer. The state allows only about 250 people a year into the sanctuary to view the bears and those people are selected by lottery.
Living room view
The bear cam allows the less lucky to get a look, too, O'Meara said.
"The first thing they have to say is 'Oh, this is live.' That intrigues them. Then they really get wrapped up in watching the bears. A lot of them are struck in how the bears interact and communicate with each other," he said.
In the peak weeks in July, the falls draw more brown bears than anywhere else in the world. While numbers have been decreasing in recent years, the bears still put on a good show. The record was 72 observed at one time in 1999.
What makes McNeil truly extraordinary is how close visitors can get to the bears, which sometimes come to within 10 feet of a viewing platform as they use steps built into the hillside to get down to the falls.
"It is a marvelous experience," said O'Meara, who has visited the sanctuary. "It is so unique. I wander the bush all the time and I see bears constantly in the wild all over this state. I would never allow that close proximity anywhere else but McNeil."
Given the stringent limits on the number of people allowed into the sanctuary, the bear cam opens up the world of the McNeil River bears, said Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game.
"This gives a lot of folks the opportunity to view these bears. We think it is a real positive thing," he said.
Fake boulder used
The camera is hidden in a fake boulder at the falls. The microwave signal travels from the camera to the museum and then through a series of repeater stations, including one on Mount Augustine volcano in Cook Inlet.
From the museum, the video feed is relayed to servers in Seattle, and from there is published on the National Geographic's Web site, where viewers can access it online in real time.
Two grants from the National Park Service foundation totaling about $40,000 and a $20,000 grant from the Mead Foundation paid for installing the bear cam and setting up the high-quality video and audio stream to the museum.
National Geographic is covering the costs of maintaining the Web site to bring the bears to an international audience, O'Meara said.
The camera, which went online in early June, will likely be shut off for the season in late August, when most of the bears leave and prepare for winter.
Aim to limit hunting
O'Meara and Michael Yourkowski, general manager of SeeMore Wildlife Systems in Homer, which set up the bear cam, said they hope it raises public awareness about the bears and how recent changes have made them more vulnerable to being hunted.
The Board of Game has decided to allow brown bear hunting on state land just south and southeast of the sanctuary, beginning July 1, 2007. That decision places the McNeil bears at greater risk because they often roam outside the sanctuary's borders.
They also aren't as likely as other wild bears to run off when encountering humans, O'Meara and Yourkowski said.
"The bears that come to the falls are somewhat habituated to humans because the humans are sitting there and watching them all the time. That makes them not leery of hunters," Yourkowski said.
O'Meara, a longtime Alaskan who likes to hunt, said there's no challenge in killing a McNeil River bear.
"It is a little like going to the stock yards and plugging a poor, old cow," he said.
The live camera is online at www.ngm.com/wildcamgrizzlies.