By Peter Mather
For National Geographic Polar Bear Watch
Early morning light illuminates the sky for a young grizzly bear (at left) as he wades into the Fishing Branch River in search of his next meal. Bear Cave Mountain, which holds some 25 grizzly denning caves, sits behind the river.
In the Arctic Circle, grizzlies roam throughout the Ni’iinlii Njik (Fishing Branch) Territorial Park in the Canadian Yukon. This 2,500-square-mile ecological reserve is home to a significant population of grizzly bears, as well as chum salmon, gray wolves, bald eagles, moose, and caribou. Salmon swim from the Bering Sea, more than a thousand miles away, to reach the river’s nutrient-rich waters, spawning and dying here each fall.
It is a sacred place for the Vuntut Gwitchin indigenous community. The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation worked closely with the Yukon government to establish the reserve and its adjacent Habitat Protection Area through a land claims process that began decades ago.
(Read more about Canada’s Yukon in National Geographic.)
In the fall of 2013, photographer Peter Mather traveled to this unique reserve to photograph grizzlies and other wildlife in its karst ecosystem, a unique mineral-rich habitat.
An aerial shot near the Fishing Branch Territorial Park captures the surrounding region’s stunted trees, snow-covered mountains, and open plains.
A dead salmon floating in the river draws in an inquisitive grizzly bear. During the daytime, this sow grizzly and her cub would hunt in four-hour increments: For three hours they would walk along the riverbank searching for fish, then break for an hour-long nap, and resume the cycle anew.
In the crystal clear waters of the Fishing Branch River, a chum salmon guards its spawning bed. Chum salmon population numbers are said to have fallen well below traditional levels in the past two decades.
A grizzly tears into a freshly caught fish. Using its sharp claws, the bear tears the fish skin off like an orange peel.
Though the reserve provides a protective Arctic habitat for grizzly bears and spawning salmon, it is still vulnerable to outside forces, including environmental pressures and overfishing outside its protected area.
Conservationists and indigenous groups are working together to find ways to protect and sustain the wildlife here and in other parts of the Arctic.