ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A fight is brewing over hunting of the famous McNeil River bears, known for offering humans the world's best glimpse of life in the wild as they feast on salmon and fatten up for the long Alaska winter.
While the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is off-limits to hunters, the Alaska Board of Game wants to allow hunting on 95,000 nearby acres the bears also use, outraging supporters who consider them far too familiar with humans to be fair game.
"Those bears are world famous. Their numbers appear to be in decline," said Dave Bachrach, a bear viewing guide. "Until they know why, how can we open the back door and allow hunters in to kill some more?"
The game board, appointed by the previous governor, Frank Murkowski, said it was acting at the behest of hunters in the village of Naknek about 100 miles away when it decided to clear the way for a fall hunt on state land near the sanctuary.
The board's chairman, Ron Somerville, said the sanctuary was created to protect bear viewing — not individual bears.
"It was never designed to protect the bears wherever they wandered," he said, adding the state constitution requires that game be managed for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans.
Hunting groups divided
Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, which is a strong advocate for hunters' rights, favors the new rules, disputing the theory that the McNeil River bears are so used to humans it would be unsporting to hunt them. Once the bears leave the falls near the viewing area and venture outside the sanctuary, they are as wily as other bears, he said.
Opponents are presenting the seven-member game board with a slew of proposals, some calling for the board to reverse its decision. The proposals will be voted on at a meeting scheduled for March.
Another group representing hunters, the Alaska Professional Hunters Association Inc., said the bad publicity stings, rendering the game board's decision risky to the reputation of hunters.
"From our point of view, the allocation or opportunity to harvest a minimum number of bears is not worth the negative feedback," said the association's director, Bobby Fithian.
Hanging out at the falls
In the peak weeks each summer, the McNeil River Falls draw more brown bears to one place than anywhere else in the world. While numbers have been decreasing in recent years, the bears still put on a good show as they snatch salmon from the river, tend to their young and tussle in the water within feet of gravel areas set aside for limited numbers of humans chosen by state lottery to watch them. The record number of bears observed there at one time was 72 in 1999.
"A bear like Teddy is invaluable," said Larry Aumiller, who led groups to the platform for three decades as sanctuary manager. "She is so good, so tolerant. In a way, she's worth 10 other bears."
Controversy over the new hunting rules prompted him to quit and move to Montana.
"To be honest, it was so heartbreaking I just couldn't be around it," Aumiller said.
While brown bears are not in short supply in Alaska — the state has 35,000 to 45,000 of them — the McNeil River bears are considered special because of how close they will safely come to humans and how many gather at the falls.
Humans get in via lottery
The state created the sanctuary four decades ago to preserve that special bear viewing opportunity, which is doled out to about 250 lucky people via the lottery. In 1993, a refuge was established to the north, providing the bears with another buffer of protection. To the south is Katmai National Park, where no hunting is allowed.
The McNeil River bears range throughout the region, using areas to the west and north where hunting is permitted. They also use the 95,000 acres in dispute — land that has been closed to brown bear hunting for more than 20 years. Some of the McNeil bears use that land for their winter dens, Bachrach said.
"Alaska has plenty of places where brown bears can be hunted without involving lands surrounding the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary," he said in a proposal urging the game board to keep the disputed land closed to hunting for another 10 years.
The McNeil River bears aren't like any other and are worth protecting, Aumiller said.
"We are exposing those bears to a danger that they have not been allowed to learn exists," he said. "I think that is wrong."
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