Would a Change in Gun Laws Be a Threat to National Park Bears?

Katmai bears. NPS Photo.

Could Katmai's brown bears be at risk if national park gun laws are changed? NPS photo.

Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, the Bush administration has announced that it will re-open 25-year-old regulations governing firearms in America’s national parks.

The current regulations governing gun possession in America's national parks simply require that guns be unloaded and stowed -- reasonable and limited regulations that were established during the Reagan administration. These regulations exclude units of the National Park System that allow hunting and they enable hunters to safely transport guns when traveling through national parks on their way to nearby hunting grounds. In fact, in Alaska, you can carry a loaded weapon in all units except Klondike Gold Rush, Sitka, and the former Mt. McKinley National Park and Glacier Bay and Katmai National Monuments.

The National Parks Conservation Association supports the right of Americans to own guns and use them responsibly, but our Alaska Regional Office is concerned with how the change in gun regulations could affect Katmai National Park and Preserve, in particular.

Brooks Camp in Katmai is a popular brown bear viewing location. But unlike other popular bear viewing sites such as McNeil River, Brooks Camp has no limit on the number of people that can visit, so bears and lots of guests regularly mingle in close quarters. Our concern is that anxious park visitors not used to hanging around brown bears may over-react to bear behavior that is not life-threatening.

The National Park Service orients Brooks Camp visitors on how to behave around bears and they have a good system to keep people from coming in direct contact with bears, but ultimately it can't always be avoided. And you can just imagine the reaction of an armed visitor from the Lower 48 coming face-to-face with a Brooks brown bear behaving in a way that appears threatening.

Most visitors at Brooks Camp are very cautious around the bears - in part because they are unarmed. If visitors began carrying loaded guns, they may not take as much caution and care around the bears because they feel more protected.

In this situation, if a visitor armed with a handgun misreads bear behavior and panics, a series of possible events could occur:

1. The visitor fires a shot in the air to scare the bear. This likely won't scare a bear off, because although the Park Service tries to condition the bears to stay away from people, the reality is that the bears at Brooks Camp often just ignore loud noises.

2. At this point, the scared visitor could further panic and shoots the bear with the handgun, which is rarely fatal to a large coastal brown bear (a rifle would be more capable of killing a large bear). Now, you have a wounded (and potentially erratic) bear in and around a trail system, cabins, a lodge and a popular fishing stream all filled with people.

Shooting a bear in and around Brooks Camp would also put other park visitors at risk, as there are always other people on the trails or around the lodge and cabins. In a panic, when a visitor is frightened by a bear and opens fire, they may not be aware of the location of other visitors who may be nearby.

While most Alaskans embrace their firearms, they have accepted that in some of Alaska’s national park units - like Katmai - the lack of firearms provides for a unique park experience. Guns at Brooks Camp could blow that experience away.

Jim Stratton is the Alaska regional director for the NPCA.


i would love to travel to alaska to hunt and fish but traveling thru the states with a weapon , i would not be able to go thru a national park is absurd. nobody in there right mind should get that close to a bear. with or without a gun.

Julie Helgeson and Michelle Koons would probably still alive today if just one person in their party or a nearby party had a firearm available. In fact, many of the persons listed at


might still be here. Not all, but many.

Obviously you do not live here in Alaska. Thousands of people frequently come in close proximity with bears here, and there is no problem. I for one spend countless hours in the field with both wolves and bears. If you are that afraid, perhaps you should not be hunting, and certainly not in Alaska.

That's simply not true. Two people were killed on the Hula Hula River a couple years ago, and they had a firearm. They were killed in their tent, by a bear that was likely food conditioned by litter at local fish camps. Statistically speaking, you are safer with pepper spray than gun.

No Guns Should Be allowed in our national parks PLAIN AND SIMPLE NONE AT ALL.

The park rangers aren't even around to catch poachers cutting down redwood trees. And we are supposed to expect them to be around to protect us from attacks from animals or drug dealers in the back country? My wife and I are thinking of avoiding national parks in the future and just patronizing the national forests where we can protect ourselves.

Dave, I'm just curious on something. You say that you are thinking of avoiding NPs and only visit national forests "where we can protect ourselves." Do you do that currently in your day-to-day life? What I mean is, do you only travel to cities or states where you are able to carry a weapon for protection? I'm not trying to incite with this comment, I'm sincerely curious. I know there are cities (like Washington, DC) which do not allow handguns, concealed or otherwise, and some states (like California) that prohibit concealed weapons. Do you apply the same standards outside the national park when you determine where you will/won't travel to?

I really like what Wildvisions had to say... I spent much of last summer out in the interior of Alaska. And sadly (from my perspective), the only place I saw a brown bear was inside Denali National Park. But I spent three months at various locations around the Alaska range, the Brooks range and all along the haul road. Alaska was FABULOUS, but much of the 'rumors' I'd heard before my trip were terribly false. I was trained to watch bear behavior and to protect myself from the larger mammals. But my pepper spray just gathered dust all summer.

If you're that worried about bears, perhaps you need a bit more experience. I never see enough wildlife to suit me when I'm in the field. LOL


"To defrauded town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to the feast.... A day in the mountains is worth a mountain of books." -- John Muir

I spent a summer as a back country ranger in the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai Peninsula. This included the famous Russian River, where the red salmon run attracts many of Alaska's bear/human encounters. I was required to carry a shotgun (unfortunately). The damn thing was heavy, and I'd much rather have pepper spray at my side. First of all, with pepper spray you're more likely to hit your target. Second, pepper spray is almost completely disabling in the short term, but not lethal in the long term, so a bear can survive to learn its lesson. A gun is largely useless in the short term (seeing as how adrenaline can mask pain, and a gun shot takes a while to kick in), but fatal in the long run. Plus, unless you are absolutely a crack shot even in a panic, anyone shooting at a charging bear is more likely to harm their companions than the bear. I came upon a few adrenalized adn breathless hikers in my experience who had recently been charged by bears (probably bluff charges, too) who fired their whole magazine, didn't hit the bear once, and nearly injured many in their party. The noise of guns didn't seem to phase these bears. They just decided a mauling wasn't worth the energy. So, if it's bears you're worried about, I'd recommend the pepper spray versus a gun any day. And even the pepper spray will probably just gather dust, as Ms. Stemann pointed out.

I also saw fishing disputes escalate to the point of weapons being drawn. Had they not been readily accessible, a fist fight or fillet knife battle might have been the worst case scenario. At least then no bystanders would have been accidentally hurt. With handguns strapped to their hips, however, a fire fight was a mere hair trigger away.

It's not the bear or animal I fear, it's the two legged critters who want to do me harm. 99% of people who legally pack a weapon are very nice, respectable and law abiding. They are not hot heads, ready to start a shootout like some of the liberals claim. The weapon is a last resort to protect your life, and I hope the law is changed to allow concealed carry in National Parks, just crossing a border from a state to a federal property does not make me want to become a criminal, the law does.

News flash today:
Mountain lion attacks boy celebrating birthday. Father shoots lion to save son.

On Animal Planet: A bird watcher surprises a female grizzly and her cubs and is mauled; a female mountain biker is attacked by a 130 pound mountain lion.

And on the Biography Channel: The Yosemite Killer. The case of serial killer Cary Stayner, who killed visitors to Yosemite National Park in 1999.

When I travel, I don't park in dark places. I lock my doors and wear my seat belt. I stay around where other people are. I don't golf in the rain or sleep on railroad tracks. When I fly, I file a flight plan. When we backpack, we carry a PLB, matches, signal device, etc. In other words, we follow the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. We take care of ourselves. No one else will.

Its not up to you as to who can have a gun in the park, it's a matter of my right to have a gun!

This shouldn't be an issue. The 2nd Amendment doesn't make any exceptions to the right to self-defense, including on national parks. The gun restrictions are illeagal to begin with and need repealed or challenged in court. Do you realy want to do the stupid thing and play dead with a grizzly or fight back? You anti-gun folks are just clueless about nature and the real world.

Timothy Treadwell thought very much like these anti-gunner peaceniks. Now, he is dead.
Bears, lions and wolves are all wild animals. Not cute cuddly, warm and fuzzy pets like your cartoons and fairy tales depict.

And then there is the recommended defensive bear encounters advise by the NPS. To, play dead or in the event of a black bear or your tent is invaded by bears, always fight back. Fight back ? With what? Fight back and pull back a stump ?
Please. How did so many liberals ... get to be in charge of our National Park System ?

Editor's note: This comment was edited to remove a gratuitous aspersion.

This is an issue of personal freedom and self defense. We all have a natural right to self defense. That right was not given by the constitution, instead it is protected by the constitution. No one has the right to deny citizens of their right to defend themselves, be it from beast or man.

Animals can and do injury and kill people. Humans can and do injury and kill other humans. The only person that is responsible for our personal safety is ourselves. Anyone that denies us the tools we need to defend ourselves, acts in an unethical and unconstitutional manner.

Under the current rule change proposal, only those with concealed handgun permits would be allowed to carry a handgun. Those with permits have proven themselves to be the most law abiding group of citizens in the nation. Even more law abiding than police officers. To deny these people their right to self defense because of the chance that a few idiots will act irresponsibly is insane. Do we deny everyone the right to drive because a few people drive recklessly or drive drunk? No, we punish those that endanger or hurt others, but allow the rest of us to keep driving. It's no different with firearms.

Animals can and do injury and kill people. Humans can and do injury and kill other humans.

Very true.

No one has the right to deny citizens of their right to defend themselves, be it from beast or man.

Also true enough. Which is why, to the best of my knowledge, the federal government does not mandate that every citizen spend at least two weeks a year within the boundaries of a national park. No one is forcing anyone to go to national parks. The best way to defend yourself from all these vile beasts and crazed humans that are stalking our parks, is to stay far away from them. Thankfully, the law says that you have the right to not go to Yosemite. If they ever change that law, I'll be 100% in favor of allowing guns in there.

Boy are you wrong!

I'm getting into this debate a bit late due to my recent arrival to the forum. Jim Stratton raises valid concerns regarding the carrying of personal firearms in national parks in general and in Katmai in particular. For those who have not been to Brooks River in Katmai, the interaction of visitors and bears is one of the most unusual situations to be found in any national conservation unit. There is a dynamic and delicate balance between people and bears that is possible, in large part, due to mutual respect and a low threat level. This is not to say there have not been problems, but I know of only one incident in which a park employee sustained a minor wound. It is not unusual to meet a bear face to face within a few yards on a park trail. These are among the world's largest bears. The golden rule in the park is that the bears have the right-of-way, and people must move aside to allow the bears room to pass. A day at Brooks River will give you a lifetime of bear stories. Visitors are not permitted to carry firearms for a very good reason. First, it would change the dynamics of the existing truce between bears and people and possibly result in much greater restrictions on visitation. A wounded giant grizzly bear in a concentration of visitors is the stuff of nightmares.

HA. bears are THE biggest predator on LAND.. and people give them food. theres a reason they dont fear us.. i for one have no problem with wolves.. do not percieve them as a threat.. and i do not play with fire as in going to veiw bears and feed them. if i moved to alaska i would go with my ccw. and should a bear try to attack me.. whether i was in my car, at my house or throwing away trash. i would shoot it. dead. period. bears are not predictable.. and will turn on you in a split second. why do you defend them?

Nice debate -- the point has been rendered moot by events -- in August a 900 lb Brown Bear charged a man walking his dog in the Kenai area. The charge was predatory and he managed to kill the bear at a distance of a few feet with a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan in .454 Casull. Without it he would have been killed. This is the FIRST reported incident where a handgun has killed a Bear while it was involved in a predatory attack without the person being injured. Would pepper spray have worked? Probably not in this case since the attack was predatory. Was this fellow lucky - YOU BET!

Bottom line he was prepared, lucky, and is alive as a result.

Now down here in Florida I've seen drug deals (and importations) in the Everglades and there have been a number of armed robberies as well over the years. You don't need a Bear Gun to stop these sorts of things and, sadly, they are more common than we would all like them to be. Why are these things taking place in the Everglades National Park? (1) There are only 2 Enforcement Rangers on duty within the lower part of the park during daylight hours and virtually none after dark. (2) The visitors in the park have money, pawnable goods (cameras, cell phones jewelry etc.) and absoultely no way to defend themselves (Mace and Pepper spray are illegal, as are firearms under the current or old laws). I'll probably not carry a gun after the new law goes into effect but that armed robber planning a job won't be included on my notification list so he's gonna have to take a chance that "today" I did not -- that is a big change in his risk level so he's less likely to give it a go.... This makes all of us safer without my ever having to strap the damned thing on and lug it around!

So, for all of you that want safer National Parks, I'd appreciate your thanks and I expect you to spread the word far and wide that every visitor in the National Park is "Armed and Dangerous" even if we arent! ;)