Wildlife of Katmai National Park: Why Preserving Wild Spaces Is Important

Grizzly bear going after a fish in shallow water
credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

About a decade ago I attended a lecture about photographing grizzly bears, and ever since I've held a trip to see Alaska's brown bears in the center of my heart. But where would I go to see them in the environment I really wanted -- quiet, calm, and with very few people? Thanks to the US National Parks system, there was a great location: Katmai National Park. This park has not only the wildlife I wanted to see, but also is evidence of why national parks and their conservation are so deeply important to the landscape and biodiversity of the United States. And, it's where you see coastal brown bears doing their thing like chasing salmon up a stream.

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Bearscapes

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Katmai National Monument, located on the Alaska peninsula across from Kodiak Island, was established in 1918, six years after the Novarupta Volcano erupted and deposited a layer of ash 100-700 feet deep across 40 square miles. The monument preserved this ash flow as well as the flora and fauna of the area. In 1980, the monument became Katmai National Park and Preserve and is a spectacular example of how conservation of an area makes a big difference for the health of the habitat and wildlife. Today, the national park is home to some 2,000 coastal brown bears (better known as grizzly bears) as well as a broad diversity of fish, bird and marine mammal species. It is also a safe place for species threatened by or recovering from near extinction such as the sea otter and bald eagle, respectively. There are several places to stay near Katmai National Park and Preserve that will put you within viewing distance of the bears, including Brooks Camp which is famous for the scenes of bears standing at the top of a waterfall catching salmon as they leap up the falls. My lodge of choice was Katmai Wilderness Lodge as it is smaller, quieter and has a homey feel.

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Horned Puffin

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Seabirds abound in Katmai National Park so bird lovers will be in heaven while visiting. Among the more iconic birds of the north is the puffin, and the park sees Horned puffins (pictured here) during breeding season as well as Tufted puffins.

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Harbor Seal

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Besides birds, the shores of Katmai National Park host a range of marine mammals, including harbor seals. With a coat that easily matches the barnacled rocks upon which they rest, you have to look carefully to spot a seal from a distance and recognize their shape.

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Sea Otters

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Another marine mammal that can often be spotted in the water along Katmai National Park is the sea otter. Though it is still listed as an endangered species after being hunted to near extinction by the turn of the 20th century, a strong recovery effort has helped bring numbers back up a bit and the adorable sea otter is slowly recovering. However, these otters are far from out of the woods yet. Between the late 1980s to 2005, the populations dipped by as much as 90%, but the population in the Kodiak archipelago and lower Cook Inlet seems to be on the rise again.

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Bald Eagles

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

While the sea otter slowly recovers, an endangered species success story is the bald eagle. The bald eagle was once listed as an endangered species in the United States starting in 1967, due to the impacts of habitat destruction and more notably the use of DDT (mostly impacted in the lower 48). This pesticide was found to weaken the shells of eggs not only of bald eagles but many bird species, which meant the eggs broke before a chick could hatch. After DDT was banned in 1972 and recovery efforts put in place, the bald eagle was removed from the US List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the Lower 48 States on June 28, 2007. This iconic bird is testament to how a species can recover from human impacts when the right measures are taken.

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Youngsters

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The bald eagle has striking plumage but it takes a long time before the young birds get their adult coloring. Here, a juvenile eagle doesn't look much like its parents except in size and shape. When the young eagle becomes sexually mature at about four or five years of age, it will gain the iconic black body with white head and tail of an adult.

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Red Fox

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

A common sight in the Katmai National Park is the red fox, an animal as fleet of foot as it is wily. These fox have little fear of humans and will often wander up to a cabin to see if any scraps have been left within snatching distance. Though not as common a sight, other animals one might get a glimpse of in the park include wolves, lynx, moose, caribou, mink, porcupines and beavers.

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Celebrity Grizzlies

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Of course, the celebrity and headliner of the Katmai National Park is the grizzly bear. Coastal brown bears are the largest of the brown bears, weighing up to 1,500 pounds. For comparison, their relatives farther inland may weigh as little as 180 pounds. A right diet of sedge grass, clams, berries, and of course, salmon help it to reach such size.

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Fishing Skills

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

While brown bears are omnivores and have a broad diet, they are best known for their fishing abilities during the salmon runs. Yet even among salmon, the bears experience a diverse buffet with different species of salmon appearing in different rivers at different times of the season. In other words, these bears never get bored at dinner time!

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Food Coma

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Bears will catch and eat fish after fish, often only eating the most calorie-rich portions including the brain, eggs and skin when they get too full to consume the entire fish. And after a big meal often comes a deserved nap. Even when they appear to be sleeping, the bears are merely resting while still actively fishing. Watch them carefully and you'll notice their ears twitching as they analyze splashing sounds from the river, waiting for more fish to arrive.

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Bath Time for Bears

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Between tides when there are few fish to catch, bears lounge. Wouldn't you? This bear decided to take a bit of a bath, rolling and blowing bubbles in the water to get refreshed.

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An Amazing Landscape

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

National parks offer protected space for wildlife, and also for wild plants to flourish. A landscape that only changes by natural forces and not through human influence is becoming incredibly rare these days. Sitting back and enjoying the untouched beauty of Katmai National Park will refuel any visitor. Here, the moon sets as the sun rises, and the fireweed earns its name.

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National Parks, National Treasures

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The power of a national park for preserving wilderness cannot be underestimated. In a protected area, threatened species get a fighting chance at survival and the biodiversity of flora and fauna can flourish. Indeed, the grizzlies of Yellowstone are not as lucky as those in Alaska and need all the help they can get from the national park to survive. But another great feature of national parks is that visitors to these treasure troves also get something special -- an understanding of what untouched wilderness looks like and an appreciation for its grandeur. Without national parks, many of these wild spaces and the species living within them would be in danger of disappearing.

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Support National Parks

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

If you have a hankering to rekindle your relationship with nature, support national parks. And by all means, make Katmai National Park one of the stops on your list of parks to visit!