Apr 05 2021

How Camera and Networking Tech Bring Alaska’s Bears into Your Living Room

The National Park Service leverages technology to bring the natural wonder of Katmai National Park and Preserve to the masses.

Katmai National Park and Preserve is as remote as it is vast. It covers more than 4 million acres, a larger area than the state of Connecticut, and is accessible only via plane. The park, located about 290 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska, is known for its lush landscapes, serves as an important habitat for salmon and is home to thousands of brown bears.

Katmai has “probably one of the most dense brown bear populations anywhere in the world,” says Amber Kraft, interpretation and education program manager for Katmai National Park and Preserve.

The park and its bears represent a distinct example of how the National Park Service has used webcams and associated technologies to make natural beauty and wildlife accessible to millions of Americans and others around the world. This has proved especially useful during the coronavirus pandemic, as citizens have reduced their travel and stayed at home to aid public health efforts.

“Webcams have definitely provided the National Park Service with new opportunities to reach the public,” says Leslie Richardson, an economist with the NPS. “These webcams are a great way to share national parks more broadly with people from around the world.”

How the National Park Service Leverages Webcams

The 63 national parks scattered across the country are home to more than 200 webcams. The cameras provide a variety of features for the park service and to citizens. The NPS has been using webcams since 1998, when the first was deployed at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of 20 national parks that are part of the National Park Service Air Quality Webcam network, according to Richardson.

Users can watch feeds from webcams to see Old Faithful erupt, catch glimpses of bald eagles and even just check to see how heavy the traffic is at park entrances, she notes.

“Many parks are displaying webcams from friends groups and other partners,” Richardson says.

One of those partners is Explore.org, a philanthropic media organization founded by Charles Annenberg Weingarten, who “believes that people will protect what they care about,” says Candice Rusch, director of new media for Explore.org. The organization operates live webcams around the world, making a wide range of natural landscapes available to the public.

“He thought if you could bring these animals into people’s homes, then you could inspire people to care about them,” she says.

Explore.org provides technical support and knowledge to the NPS, Rusch says, and the park service provides the access to the natural resources under its care.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Popular webcams allow public to peer into inaccessible federal facilities.

Cameras Make Nature Accessible to the Masses

Cameras in Katmai operate from around mid-June through as far into the fall as Explore.org can help operate them, according to Rusch.

Explore.org mostly uses cameras from Axis or Sony, Rusch says, but a new generation of rugged 4K cameras are coming onto the market that will likely replace older models.

The NPS works closely with Explore.org to make sure the cameras in the park stay online. “In this year, especially during COVID-19, we really needed more local support than we usually do,” Rusch says.

The NPS’ Kraft notes that it’s technically challenging to keep cameras in the park online, since there often isn’t access to electricity or the internet in many parts of the park. “For park headquarters, we have a couple of T1 lines that run into the office, and it works most days,” she says. “When we are doing live chats, they’ll need to shut down some of the cams or ask the camera operators to pause in order to have the bandwidth.”

In the next year, Explore.org plans to upgrade the network infrastructure in Katmai to aid the operation of the webcams.

Amber Kraft, Interpretation and Education Program Manager, Katmai National Park and Preserve
Visitors to the live cams develop a relationship with a lot of the bears, and that’s why I think Fat Bear Week is so popular — because they’re rooting for their home team bear, so to speak.”

Amber Kraft Interpretation and Education Program Manager, Katmai National Park and Preserve

All of that work enables people from around the world to watch the park’s brown bears, which draw intense levels of interest. “We found that around three-quarters of respondents have been watching the bear cams for more than a year, and around half said they’ve been watching three years or more,” Richardson says.

One of the biggest draws in Katmai is Fat Bear Week, an annual tournament that celebrates the success of brown bears at Brooks River in Katmai in their efforts to bulk up for winter hibernation. Users get to vote on their choices for the fattest bear. The event draws interest from around the world, Kraft says.

“Visitors to the live cams develop a relationship with a lot of the bears, and that’s why I think Fat Bear Week is so popular — because they’re rooting for their home team bear, so to speak,” she says.

That connection is what keeps people coming back to view the bear cams. “People are so attracted to Katmai because it works, and it’s the bears, right?” Rusch says. “They’re cute, they’re chonky, they get fat and chubby, and people can feel good watching it.”

Based on a recent survey of Katmai bear cam viewers, according to Richardson, the NPS knows “that a lot of people are watching the bear cams more as a result of the pandemic.”

That connection is an important one for the NPS and its mission to preserve the country’s natural beauty and educate visitors about the landscapes, wildlife and history of the national parks. “These are pieces of land that have been set aside to tell a particular story,” Kraft says. “By helping to share the resource and make those connections either online or in person, we are helping people to really connect.”

The more citizens stay connected with the national parks, Richardson adds, “the more we see the importance of protecting these special places.”

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