3 men sentenced for wading in river with feeding bears at Katmai

A man takes photos close to brown bears
David Engelman wades into Brooks Falls to take photos the brown bears in August 2018. (Brooks bear cam via U.S. District Attorney’s office)

Three men were sentenced Monday for leaving a popular bear viewing platform in Katmai National Park and Preserve and wading into the river toward brown bears feeding on salmon, according to federal prosecutors.

The incident took place at the iconic Brooks Falls. The park’s rules are pretty simple: Humans have to stay on the viewing platform, which is elevated and looks out across the rushing water, where bears feed. There are also specific regulations against hazing wildlife or getting too close.

But in the summer of 2018, prosecutors say, three men ignored those rules — David Engelman, now 56, of New Mexico, and King Salmon residents Ronald Engelman II, 54, and Steven Thomas, 30.

Prosecutors say the group waded into Brooks River. David Engelman was caught on a livestream camera taking a selfie in front of the bears.

The men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a total of $9,000 in fines, as well as jail time and a year of probation. Magistrate Judge Matthew Scoble characterized the defendants’ actions as “drunken capering, and a slap in the face to those who were there.”

Park Superintendent Mark Sturm said the incident was concerning. Brown bears gather in that area of the park to catch salmon when the fish migrate upriver. Those bears can be territorial.

“They’re very aggressive among each other,” he said. “Certainly, had a bear shown up in a different location that the individuals in the water wouldn’t have seen, or had they approached a bear that was particularly territorial, or even just gotten near a club and a sow nearby, you know, there’s different types of scenarios that could have resulted in a very tragic incident. So we consider ourselves lucky that nothing like that happened.” 

David and Ronald Engelman were each sentenced to a week in prison. Thomas was sentenced to 10 days. Each of the men will pay $3,000 in fines. That money will go to the non-profit Katmai Conservancy, which will distribute it to park services. All three are prohibited from entering any national park for a year.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

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