A new study centers on Katmai bears, but it's the people watching them both in the park and online who are the focus. Researchers are looking at how watching wildlife changes attitudes toward conservation.
It’s peak bear season at Katmai National Park. That means visitors to the Brooks Camp are waiting their turn to get on crowded viewing platforms, while this season over 10 million viewers have watched the action via web-cam.
These two different ways of interacting with Katmai bears are the subject of a new study. Researchers are looking at how humans connect with bears, and what that could mean for the future of America’s public lands.
The scene at Brooks Falls is every tourist’s dream of Alaska summer. Salmon hurl themselves at the falls, while a couple huge brown bears wade through foamy rapids.
This is what Jeffrey Skibins is watching – on Explore.org’s bear cam, that is, from his office at Kansas State University.
“As we speak, I’m sitting in wonderful, sunny Manhattan, Kansas, and my colleague Dr. Sharp is in Katmai right now collecting data from the on-site visitors. I drew the short straw on that one,” he laughs.
Skibins is an assistant professor of park management and conservation at KSU. He and his colleague Dr. Ryan Sharp are interested in how human interest affects wildlife conservation. So when they caught wind of the super-popular Katmai bear cam, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to compare online interest with in-person visitation.
They want to know two main things from both virtual and real-life bear-watchers. For one, what kind of emotional connection do these people have with the bears. To determine this, they ask questions like "on a scale of one to 9, would you say that your emotional sense of wellbeing would be diminished by the extinction of brown bears?"
Secondly, they want to know, if you do have that emotional connection, what are you willing to do about it?
“Are you willing to take the next step and engage in some sort of what we would call a pro-conservation behavior?” explains Skibins. “In other words, would you do something to help these bears that you’re watching?”
Helping the bears, Skibins says, could mean more than just donating money. It could mean supporting management strategies that are better for animals, even if that means, say, limiting visitor access to viewing areas or limiting recreational activities during peak bear activity.
Skibins and Sharp are trying to find out who is more willing to sacrifice for the bears – armchair tourists, or those toting cameras out on the platforms?
“Okay, let me just posit a theory, and you tell me what you think,” I asked Skibins. “I’ve been really struck by how the online viewership is constant and fanatical. If you spend any amount of time on there, you see certain viewers are interacting like old friends. They know each other, they know the bears, they know the rangers. So my impression is that those people might be more dedicated than just a one-day visitor.”
“That is an accurate hypothesis," says Skibins. Those are the kinds of things they’re trying to untangle by surveying both kinds of bear-watchers.
And the results, Skibins argues, could help parks survive a major challenge – figuring out how to stay relevant in the modern age.
“If you think about, just try to name two or three national parks off the top of your head. Odds are, one of them was probably the Grand Canyon, and one was probably Yellowstone," said Skibins. "The majority of the iconic, traditional go-to idea about what parks are in the U.S. are out West. So it’s difficult for the majority of the population to access those parks. “
Katmai might be the ultimate example of the inaccessible national park – as Skibins pointed out, he could get to Kenya for less airfare than it takes to get to Katmai.
And what’s out of reach is often out of mind. If the general public stops caring about federally funded parks, Skibins fears they could cease to exist.
“And so one of the challenges today is, how do we get national parks to people and people to national parks? This idea of a webcam could be a useful tool as parks emerge in the 21st century.”
The survey results are still a ways off, but Skibins and Sharp hope their study helps parks give the people the wildlife experience they want – whether it’s on-site or online.