Staff at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center spotted the first bears of the season Monday morning, one day before shifting to summer operations.
The visitor center switches to summer hours today and implements the $3 per-adult fee, as the first cruise ship of the season arrives at 8 a.m.
On Monday, a well-known sow brought her two cubs, one black and one brown, back to the area. The cubs were sleeping in a cottonwood tree that could be seen with a spotting scope.
The area's Arctic terns came back Thursday, while bear prints were first spotted the second week of April, Interpreter Laurie Craig said.
The center, run by the U.S. Forest Service, received an estimated 450,000 visitors last summer. It was built in 1962 as a viewing platform for the Mendenhall Glacier, but bears have become close-second attractions.
Bears were a rare sight until the late 1990s, according to staff, who now say more than a dozen - all females - return every summer.
Elevated platforms built in 2005 over Steep Creek for bear viewing changed the way the public interacts with bears, Craig said. The wooden platforms separate people from bears but allowed the two to exist together.
The presence of humans is part of the reason why the bears continue to live near the center, Craig said.
"The sows with little cubs find a little bit of security around people because the male bears tend to stay away from people."
There's also abundant food, from spawning salmon in the creek to berries and other vegetation that grew in after the glacier receded. Cottonwood trees have reached heights that offer cubs protection off the ground.
The staff manages the bear-tourist interaction with interpreters like Craig, who inform the public about the bears while also trying to keep people at a safe distance.
Bears can become habituated to benign human behavior but their comfort level with personal space changes. Last September, a sow was pepper-sprayed by a staff member after demonstrating aggressive behavior.
Craig said she thought a number of stressors affected the animal - a lack of fish at that time and a growing cub that liked to stray - but "we can never really know what's in a bear's mind."
The road to the glacier was closed for a few consecutive nights to give the bear time to calm down.
The return of the bears and start of the tourist season this week bring additional rules, including a no-food policy put in place last year to help in bear management. Dogs must be leashed in busy areas and, also for the benefit of bear habitat, are not allowed on the Steep Creek trails.
The Arctic terns, which mate and lay their eggs in sand on the beach in front of the building, will stay around until mid-July. The seabirds fly more than 70,000 miles a year, making their way to the Antarctic and back.
The visitor center summer hours are daily from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The entrance fee is $3 for adults.
The visitor center bookstore, Alaska Geographic, also opens today.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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