How much would you pay to watch grizzlies munch salmon?
Because a minimum of $10,000 is what a new Yukon ecotourism venture demands.
On Tuesday, the Yukon’s parks branch and the Vuntut Development Corporation launched a bear-viewing opportunity on the Fishing Branch River, near Bear Cave Mountain.
Ten years in the making, the tourism venture allows small groups to visit the Ni’iinlii Njik Ecological Reserve between September 1st and November 1st, when the grizzlies come to the river to feed on chum salmon.
This year, only two people and a guide will be allowed to visit the reserve at a time.
Within three years, the numbers will have reached their maximum, four people and a guide, with a total of 28 people visiting the reserve each year.
“Our primary objective is not economics, it’s protection,” Premier Dennis Fentie told a news conference Tuesday.
The tourism aspect is just an added initiative, he said.
Tourists must stay in the reserve a minimum of seven days, and each will pay a reduced rate of $1,500 per day over the next few years.
“Then, after that, it’s market demand,” said the development corporation’s executive director Ron Daub, who hopes to see prices rise to US$2,000 per day.
Yukoners will be granted a reduced rate of $800 a day, he added.
“It’s not a great revenue generator,” said Fentie.
It was more an opportunity to develop this reserve and have the First Nations and the Yukon government work together, he said.
The reserve is comprised of Crown land and Vuntut Gwitchin settlement land.
“This is unique; it’s the first time in Canada First Nations and government have gotten together and donated land,” said Yukon parks director Erik Val.
“We are proud to be able to share our culture with the world,” said Vuntut Gwitchin chief Joe Linklater.
“We want to bring students to the area, to offer land-based experiential learning, also for post-secondary students doing research — they’ll be lucky to have such a classroom,” he said.
People want to learn how important this ecosystem is, said Val, who noted that the University of Ottawa has already been studying the ecology of the Fishing Branch, to see why it stays open in the winter.
Permafrost studies have also been undertaken and there’s a fishing weir on the river, he said.
The research is part of an ongoing plan to protect this area, said Val.
Bear expert Phil Timpany worked out the location of the viewing cabins and platform, choosing a location that won’t leave a huge ecological footprint in the area, said Val.
Timpany, who has worked for the Yukon government and First Nations, has been hired as the guide, although plans are also in the works to train two Vuntut Gwitchin guides.
“Timpany’s been doing research in the area for 15 or 20 years,” said Val.
“And he knows the viewing areas very well — he knows bears.”
Bears can be loved to death, said Val, cautioning against disturbing and habituating bears.
“This is why we have to be careful to only allow a certain number of people any given year.
“The area can’t sustain a huge number of people going there.”
The Fishing Branch is an amazing place, said Linklater.
“There are a couple trails, and not only do you see grizzlies but this mineral water comes up from the ground.
“I was there, and a wolf came over the hill and howled, probably 100 feet away, and we saw this young moose and young grizzly meet for the first time — they didn’t know what to do with each other.
“You kind of have to be there.”
Besides viewing bears, tourists will be able to hike to caves on Bear Cave Mountain, where some of the grizzlies hibernate.
“We want to share this unique area, but we don’t want to have an impact on it,” said Vuntut development president Stephen Mills.
The development corp. has not decided how it will deal with rising demand, once tourists learn about this unique viewing opportunity.
“We might do it on a first-come-first-serve basis, or we might hold a lottery,” said Daub.
Even at US$14,000 a week, Vuntut development expects a high demand.
The beauty of this area will draw world-class photographers, videographers and interested clients, said Mills.
“But we also want to leave it open to Yukoners to enjoy this unique aspect of their territory.”
The reserve is accessed by helicopter from Dawson city, a flight that will take at least 70 minutes, depending on weather in the valley.
Access restrictions in the reserve will be lifted from November 2nd to August 30th, although landing restrictions will remain in place.
But, surrounded by remote wilderness, it won’t be easy to get there.
“In terms of access restrictions, Mother Nature might be one,” said Fentie.
There is a wilderness preserve, surrounding the ecological reserve, permanently protecting the Fishing Branch watershed.