Alaska's McNeil River is home to one of the world's largest concentrations of brown bears. People who visit the state game sanctuary routinely leave awestruck.
Selected by lottery, 200 visitors a summer can watch 1,000-pound grizzlies scarf salmon, romp or snooze in the grass. The dozens of bears that cavort at the sanctuary's famous McNeil River Falls have become some of the most photographed bruins of all time.
"This is the ultimate in bear-viewing in the world, bar none," said Paul Joslin, a biologist and wildlife advocate.
Because of McNeil River's near-mythic status as a wildlife mecca, a state effort, soon to get under way, to rewrite rules governing the area is already raising hackles. Staff at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say they're being bombarded with e-mails and phone calls urging caution in tinkering with such a special place.
A 10-year-old plan guides what can happen on the 128,000-acre sanctuary, created in 1967, and the adjacent 120,000-acre McNeil refuge, added 26 years later. It spells out, in general terms, what people can do and where they can do it. Things like access, commercial permits, boat storage, aquaculture, fish research, archaeology and overnight camping are included.
The plan does not regulate hunting and trapping, activities left to the Alaska Board of Game.
The McNeil sanctuary, created to provide permanent protection for brown bears and other wildlife and fish, is tightly regulated.
Hunting in the sanctuary, which borders Katmai National Park, is permanently barred. And only a small number of bear watchers, closely guarded by Fish and Game minders, are allowed in every year.
The refuge next door is a different story. Hunting, while not allowed there now, could happen if the Board of Game so decides, and bear enthusiasts worry that the board will do that next year. The debate over hunting in McNeil refuge dates back years. Whenever it bubbles to the surface, it's emotional, super controversial and often downright nasty.
REFUGE VS. SANCTUARY
Unlike the sanctuary, bear viewing in the refuge is far less regulated. While few commercial operators take bear viewers there now, that could change as demand grows.
Bear-viewing is big business, and it's becoming more so every year.
Thousands of visitors flock to a roughly 200-mile swath of West Cook Inlet and Shelikof Strait coastline from spring through early fall. Guided by companies based primarily in Homer and Anchorage, the tourists swoop in to places where bears congregate, namely salmon streams in Katmai and Lake Clark national parks.
Permits for commercial bear-viewing in the two parks have nearly doubled from 58 in 2000 to 106 last year, according to the National Park Service. "We fill our airplane every day from May to September," said Chris Day, who charges $556 per passenger for a day's worth of bear watching. Day owns Emerald Air Service of Homer with her husband, Ken.
On state land at Wolverine Creek, across Cook Inlet from Nikiski and about 80 miles southwest of Anchorage, some 500 to 1,000 people visited to fish and watch bears 10 years ago. Last summer the count reached about 11,000 people, said Joe Meehan of Fish and Game.
While their efforts to update the McNeil River management plan are just getting under way, Fish and Game officials say they are getting swamped with messages, mainly from people begging them to protect McNeil's world-famous bears and the opportunities to view them in the refuge.
Officials say they're not attempting to tip the balance in the often polarized debate between those who watch bears and those who shoot them.
"The revision of this plan ... it's not going to open the refuge to hunting," said John Hechtel, regional refuge manager for Southcentral.
But Fish and Game's assurances have done little to calm the fears of bear-viewing advocates and others who worry that the department will succumb to political pressure from the generally pro-hunting Game Board.
An electronic flier is being circulated with the headline: "McNeil River bears need your help!" It warns readers to be suspicious of what Fish and Game is undertaking, because the Board of Game instigated it.
The board asked Fish and Game to revise the McNeil plan in March 2005, saying the current plan needs a fresh look. The revision formally kicks off this week with public meetings in Homer and Anchorage.
"It's a stepping stone to opening it up to hunting," said Joslin, a board member of Friends of McNeil River, about the revision.
"It's coming from the Board of Game. It must be agenda-driven," said Day.
Board of Game vice chairman Ron Somerville of Juneau said the goal of rewriting the plan is not to curtail bear-viewing or pave the way for hunting in the refuge.
"That is not the ulterior motive," Somerville said.
There's a host of reasons driving the revision, namely the need for future planning and because many people complain about the lottery system that determines who gets into the sanctuary to view bears at McNeil River Falls, he said. Some think it's too restrictive or not enough. Others just don't like it, he said.
Because bear-viewing has grown so exponentially in Alaska, the time is ripe for a plan review, Somerville said.
"You can avoid some of the problems by planning in advance," Somerville said.
Fish and Game officials agree. Several said they welcome the chance to update the plan.
"There's no reason to wait until you have scads and scores of people beating on your door for a permit," said Matt LaCroix, habitat biologist with Fish and Game.
As for fears that Game Board members will pressure Fish and Game to curb bear-viewing, Somerville rejected that.
"People can be overly paranoid and try to create something that isn't there," he said.
If a proposal to open the refuge to bear hunting surfaces, it will be part of a public process and not a stealth move, Somerville said.
But Dave Bachrach of Homer sees reason to be suspicious.
Bachrach said he had a permit for commercial bear-viewing camp in McNeil refuge in 2004. But after he testified against a proposal to open the refuge to hunting at the Game Board's March 2005 meeting, Fish and Game did not reissue him the same permit for the next summer.
Officials told him they were not comfortable giving him the permit now that the Board of Game was shining a spotlight on the issue, Bachrach said.
The Game Board's opening of state land next to the McNeil sanctuary for bear hunting after July 2007 is evidence of where the board is headed, hunting opponents say. The added hunting pressure, and the fact that the number of McNeil River bears has declined in recent years for unknown reasons, mean the bears need more protection, not less, they argue.
Many McNeil River watchers expect the issue of hunting in the refuge to come up at the board's meeting in Anchorage next March.
The Alaska Outdoors Council, a hunters and trappers advocacy group, supports opening the McNeil refuge for hunting, said Rod Arno, executive director.
"In the 25 years before the refuge was created, there was both hunting and viewing," Arno said. "There wasn't any problem."
The board of the Alaska Travel Industry Association would likely object to any effort to allow hunting in McNeil refuge or nearby, said spokesman Dave Worrell.
"Any opportunity that Alaska visitors have to see wildlife in its natural environment is good for the industry," he said. "We have survey after survey that says people come here to see mountains, glaciers and wildlife."
Fish and Game's public meeting in Homer is scheduled from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Monday at the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center. The Anchorage event is planned for 7 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Anchorage Senior Center.
Daily News reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.