Animals & Money: the budding bear-viewing industry

Last week I was up in New Brunswick, Canada and got a chance to try out a novel bear-viewing attraction. At the Little, Big Bear Safari, hunting guide, Richard Goguen has built a tower on his family land to watch black bears. The success of the operation makes me think that bear-viewing has some future as a way people in rural areas can make money off bears without hunting them -- as long as a few safety concerns are covered.

Goguen built a road into land that once belonged to his grandfather in Acadieville, in northeast New Brunswick, about 150 miles east of Maine. In the late '90s Richard worked for a season guiding American bear hunters, but didn't like the killing. One day he took a hunter who had already been successful out just to take pictures of bear and moose. Both had more fun doing that than hunting and Richard decided then he wanted to start a bear-viewing operation.

Richard built a trial six-person tower a decade ago, then a 15-person giant tree house in 2000. Having to turn people away, he expanded again last year to a two-story, two-staircase, wood and metal mesh tower that includes a wood-burning stove. They offer the tour every night and have his friendly forest ranger neighbors fill in when he wants a night off.

Richard and his wife Vivienne, a multi-lingual Acadian couple, get busloads of German tourists and visitors from all over the world. The neighbors are proud so many people come to see their natural wonder.
Here's the experience: You pay $45 and get driven deep into the woods on a mini-bus. Goguen dumps buckets of apples as well as meat and nuts for the bears while the guests climb the stairs. Vivienne drives the bus back home, lest the bears climb on it. For about 90 minutes visitors watch the bear families interact, which means some dominate the food, chase the younger bears off. There's grunting, tree climbing, back-scratching and some chasing off of birds and squirrels. Everyone there was completely fascinated.

In Alaska and western Canada there's already a very active bear-viewing business. British Columbia has a Commercial Bear Viewing Association. Bear biologist Stephen Stringham wrote a guide called Bear Viewing in Alaska. Many companies offer tours and the guides are beginning to argue for the bears in fights over wildlife management. But they're mainly looking at grizzly bears (which only live out west) at sites where they fish for spawning salmon.

It's harder to arrange bear-viewing without a salmon stream. There are a few places in the U.S. where you may stand a good chance to see bears. But hunters who bait bears (leave food to attract them) insist that's the only reliable way to get them to show up. Goguen brings food and is thinking of starting to plant crops just for the bears. (Some apple orchard owners up north complain of bear and moose snacking too much.) Stringham has suggested that New Jersey make use of its growing bear population with viewing sites set up near oak trees when they produce lots of acorns.

In the U.S., feeding bears is very much opposed. Bears who get used to getting food from people come to associate people with food and expect food from all people. The Goguen's bear stand is two and half kilometers from the nearest house. Bear-bating is allowed in 10 states, but I guess the argument is that if they kill those bears, they don't get habituated.

I'm sure there is risk in bear viewing. The bears could have easily climbed the tower I was on. It made me nervous, like I was filming something that would end up on the news, when Richard hand-fed some of the bears. Vivienne says neither Richard nor any guest has ever been hurt by the bears. If the bears they feed were to start raiding garbage or scaring people, Vivienne says the game wardens would certainly have told them about it and removed the bear.

I wonder if this kind of animal-watching innovation could ever happen in the more litigious United States.
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