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Alaska Bear viewing; using science to predict the best time to see bears in Alaska

Posted in: Alaska


Alaska Bear viewing – using science to predict the best time to see bears in Alaska

So, is there a magic formula to help us predict the best time for you to visit Alaska for bear viewing? A formula, something like a+b X c = ‘the maximum number of bears’ - where a is the number of salmon available to eat, b is the amount of rain to get the salmon up the rivers and c is the number of days you commit to your Alaska bear safari? Of course not, but with hotter, drier summers becoming the norm in Alaska, salmon unable to get upstream due to low water levels and the threat of forest fires disrupting your fly-in bear viewing tours to Brooks Falls, or Katmai national park; it would be foolish to ignore important scientific data; such a rainfall patterns, global warming and size of returning salmon runs; when it comes to planning your Alaska bear safari.

If you have been sending clients on Alaska wildlife tours for more than 10 years – as Wildlife Trails has – you have your own personal data base of information based on the direct feedback from the clients themselves and to a lesser extent, the Alaska wildlife lodges where they stay. Understandably, they want to paint as positive a picture as is possible as this is their livelihood; but for us, this has to also be as truthful and transparent as possible; so, our knowledgeable clients can make an informed decision about the best places to visit for grizzly bear viewing in Alaska.

Katmai bear viewing – are May and September now better months to travel?

If you read any of the thousands of internet pages about the best time to visit Katmai national park for bears, you will find a general consensus that July and August are the best months. This is mainly due to salmon returning in huge numbers (at least historically) to major river estuaries along the Katmai coast. As these salmon first enter the mouths of the estuaries, they still have plenty of life left in them and some of the explosive bear photos you may have seen taken in locations like Katmai Wilderness Lodge, are from that two month window. In addition, looking at Katmai national park weather averages, we can see mention of maximum highs of 19 Celsius – quite comfortable for most visitors – and relatively low rainfall cumulations, of between 25-35mm. Believe me, some of this fairly outdated information does not give you a true impression of the last two years weather in Katmai national park. If we take the coastal community of King Salmon – which provides access to the famous bear viewing stands at Brooks Falls – where weather has been continuously observed for 70 years – one of the longest periods in SW Alaska. In July 2019, the temperature at the King Salmon Airport reached 89°F (31.7°C). This is the highest temperature ever recorded there and, as you can see, more than 10 Celsius higher than seasonal norms.

How warming rivers are affecting food resources for coastal Brown Bears in Alaska

When we are looking at climatic changes in Alaska and increasing temperatures, how that impacts summer bear viewing in Katmai national park and other famous national parks, is related to water temperatures in the many inlets and rivers. As an example, the famous Cook Inlet, recorded a temperature of 81.7°F on the Deshka River; this is a river between Talkeetna and Anchorage, which is famous for its salmon sports fishing. Salmon are very much cold water fish and this would be a temperature, several degrees above the long term sustainability of wild salmon stocks. They would be forced to find cooler inlets and possibly glacier fed rivers, just to survive.

So, although far from an exact science and this is a picture that is changing very rapidly. You can argue that organising your bear viewing in Alaska during the month of May – in effect, Spring bear viewing – could bring multiple benefits. Avoiding the hotter temperatures will not only be more comfortable for you but also reduce the risk of wildfires which are becoming a real problem in the peak summer months. There is more chance to see female bears and their cubs before the salmon runs start, as this is a safer time of them to bring their spring cubs out - due to less male bears being around who are of course the main threat to the cubs survival. The other side of the bear viewing season is the month of September, where we may see lower temperatures and increased water levels helping the final runs of salmon to get upstream and allow large male bears a final gorging of protein before the autumnal weather arrives.

Planning your Alaska Bear safari with expert help

Your first port of call should be visiting the Alaska bear tours page on our website and getting a feel for the huge diversity of tours we have available. All have been expertly planned by our team on returning from Alaska bear safaris lasting many weeks and visiting locations as diverse as, Brooks Falls, Katmai national park, Lake Clark national park, Anan Bear Sanctuary, Pack Creek and Wolverine Creek. Please email us at [email protected] or chat direct with Allan on Whatsapp.

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