ANCHORAGE, Alaska Only a lucky few humans are allowed each summer to get up close and personal with the McNeil River bears, but thanks to the wilderness equivalent of the "Big Brother" show, the animals are available to the world.
A bear cam set up in their favorite spot of the 114,400-acre McNeil River State Game Sanctuary shows them brawling over salmon, cooling off in the falls, sunbathing on the rocks and fattening up for the long, Alaska winter.
The state holds a lottery for about 250 people each year to visit the sanctuary 250 miles southwest of Anchorage to view the bears. The Internet cam allows the less lucky to get a look, too, said Mike O'Meara, project manager for the Pratt Museum in Homer across Cook Inlet from the sanctuary.
"The first thing they have to say is, 'Oh, this is live.' That intrigues them. Then they really get wrapped up in watching the bears. A lot of them are struck in how the bears interact and communicate with each other," he said.
The bear cam is turned on from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Alaska Standard Time and has eight presets to zoom in on where the animals are likely to be at any given hour. During the afternoon, an interpreter at the museum controls the solar-powered camera to get the best views.
In the peak weeks in July, the falls draw more brown bears than anywhere else in the world. While numbers have been decreasing in recent years, the bears still put on a good show. The record was 72 observed at one time in 1999.
What makes McNeil truly extraordinary is how close visitors can get to the bears, which sometimes come to within 10 feet of a viewing platform as they use steps built into the hillside to get down to the falls.
The camera is hidden in a fake boulder at the falls. The microwave signal travels from the camera to the museum through a series of repeater stations. From the museum, the video feed is relayed to servers in Seattle, and from there is published on the National Geographic's Web site, where viewers can access it online in real time.
Two grants from the National Park Service foundation totaling about $40,000 and a $20,000 grant from the Mead Foundation paid for installing the bear cam and setting up the high-quality video and audio stream to the museum. Alaska Conservation Foundation contributed $5,000.
National Geographic is covering the costs of maintaining the Web site to bring the bears to an international audience, O'Meara said.
Real Networks of Seattle contributed digitizing computers that allow the audio and video to be streamed onto the Internet. The camera, which went online in early June, will likely be shut off for the season in late August, when most of the bears leave and prepare for winter.
O'Meara and Michael Yourkowski, general manager of SeeMore Wildlife Systems in Homer, which first set up the bear cam in 1999 and has improved on it since, said they hope it raises public awareness about the bears and how recent changes have made them more vulnerable to being hunted.
Last year, the Alaska Board of Game decided to allow brown bear hunting on state land just south and southeast of the sanctuary, beginning July 1, 2007. That decision places the McNeil bears at greater risk because they often roam outside the borders of the sanctuary.
They also aren't as likely as other wild bears to run off when encountering humans, O'Meara and Yourkowski said.
"The bears that come to the falls are somewhat habituated to humans because the humans are sitting there and watching them all the time. That makes them not leery of hunters," Yourkowski said.
O'Meara, a longtime Alaskan who likes to hunt, said there's no challenge in killing a McNeil River bear.
"It is a little like going to the stock yards and plugging a poor, old cow," he said.