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Alaskans debate future of bear refuges
by Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News


March 08, 2005

Homer, Alaska - Rod Arno remembers guiding bear hunters in the country south of Kamishak Bay. It was the only place in his career where he led a client to a coastal brown bear and then, the next day, returned with another client to shoot a second trophy feeding on the unsalvaged remains of the first one.

That state land around the Douglas River was closed to hunting 20 years ago because a land trade with the National Park Service was under discussion. But the trade never took place, and now the state Board of Game, which began its spring meeting Friday, is considering opening the area again.

Arno, a hunting activist for the Alaska Outdoor Council, likes that idea. He's even more enthusiastic about reopening a state game refuge farther north, where bear hunting was closed in 1995. One reason for that particular closure was an enhanced salmon run on the Paint River was expected to create a magnet for bears. But the salmon project flopped.

"That threat is null and void now," says Arno. "So if there's ever an area to be looked at again, this would be a dandy."

It may sound routine to review closed areas where conditions have changed - especially with bear populations in the area looking healthy. But as the Game Board takes a broad look at areas closed to hunting and trapping, a push by hunters for change in the two Kamishak Bay areas is drawing thousands of public comments. The reason: Sandwiched between those two areas is the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska's world-famous bear viewing destination.

In 1995, the last time the McNeil River bears were a full-blown issue in front of the board, bear viewing advocates exerted tremendous national pressure to close the refuge to the north, arguing it would be unethical to hunt "tame" bears that had grown used to humans.

Today, the forces against hunting in the area appear even stronger. Bear viewing flights have become a big and fast-growing part of Alaska's tourism industry, with brown bears between Katmai and Lake Clark national parks providing the biggest growth.

What's more, the number of bears fishing at the crown jewel - McNeil River falls - has plunged in recent years, with declining runs of chum salmon suspected as the main culprit. At the same time, bear hunters in the 2003-'04 season killed twice as many bears in the national preserve west of McNeil as they had in previous seasons. If anything, bear viewing advocates say, it's time for more hunting restrictions in the area, not fewer.

"Why are the hunters doing it?" asks Chris Day, who flies about 1,000 tourists every summer with her Homer-based bear viewing company, Emerald Air. "It just seems ludicrous to me. It's like sticking a stick in a hornet's nest."

The answer has a lot to do with statewide concerns and trends. Hunting advocates say it's time to take a stand at McNeil River on the philosophical position that the same bear population can be ogled by tourists in one valley and shot by hunters in the next.

"Even though it's controversial, I find it a healthy debate as we look around the state," says Ron Somerville, a hunting community leader finishing a two-year term on the Game Board.

An important factor may be political timing. Game Board members appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski have been highly sympathetic to predator control and other hunting priorities. Putting that political clout to the test at the 10-day meeting is likely to mean plenty of lunging, ear-flattening and other dominance displays familiar to past visitors to the McNeil River falls.

The bear-viewing industry is getting to be big business and will press for more hunting closures elsewhere, predicted board member Ted Spraker, a former state game biologist. He said the state's job is to keep bear populations healthy and often to separate viewers and hunters by seasons and areas. But it's not to ensure that old, large male bears sought by hunters are available for viewing, he said.

"What the viewing folks want is to go to where animals are not hunted at all," Spraker said.

Somerville said it's becoming a clash of two philosophies.

"The sanctuary was never intended to encompass the entire range of the bears. That's what it's become for some people," he said.

The McNeil River Sanctuary, where access is limited to state permit holders, is closed to hunting by law and will not be affected by the Game Board's deliberations. But the bears range 50 miles or more from the sanctuary's protection.

Arno sees another philosophical divide coming into play: between hunters who want to see healthy populations and viewers who become attached to individual bears.

"When I think of wildlife, I don't think of them in my anthropomorphic views of how they relate to my world," Arno said. "When I hunt, I think of relating to their world."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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