The Alaska State Legislature designated the McNeil River area as a wildlife sanctuary in 1967 (and enlarged it in 1993) to protect the world’s largest seasonal congregation of wild brown bears. As many as 144 individual bears have been observed at McNeil River through the summer with as many as 74 bears observed at one time.
The sanctuary protects approximately 200 square miles of wildlife habitat and is a remote, roadless area undisturbed by human development.
Although all five species of Pacific salmon are present in the sanctuary, it is the calico-colored chum salmon that primarily attract bears to McNeil River in early July through mid-August. About one mile upstream from its mouth, a series of rocks and boulders forms McNeil River Falls. Salmon are slowed in their movements by the falls and congregate during their upstream migration to spawn. Since there are few rivers in the area with similar fishing sites, bears congregate at McNeil River Falls in numbers that have brought McNeil River worldwide fame.
During June, a smaller number of bears are attracted to nearby Mikfik Creek by migrating sockeye salmon. During this period, visitors observe bears from a variety of sites on or near the creek while the bears catch fish and graze on tidal vegetation.
Preservation of these wildlife habitats and the unique brown bear congregation is the primary management goal of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. This means that all human activities must be compatible with this primary management goal.
McNeil River was established by the State of Alaska in 1967 for
- The permanent protection of brown bear and other fish and wildlife populations and their habitats for scientific, aesthetic, and educational purposes;
- To manage human use and activities in a way that is compatible with that purpose and to maintain and enhance unique bear viewing opportunities in the sanctuary;
McNeil River has had a long history of protecting the bears and its unique resources.