Last year the Alaska Board of Game declared open season on wildlife viewing when it voted to allow bear hunting alongside the world-famous McNeil River State Wildlife Sanctuary. That decision brought howls of outrage and overwhelmingly negative media coverage from Anchorage to Washington, D.C.
Now the Board of Game has set its sights on Pack Creek, another popular brown bear viewing area on Admiralty Island, just 30 miles south of Juneau.
Bear hunting is currently allowed on more than 90 percent of Admiralty Island, a million-acre wilderness home to one of the highest concentrations of brown bears in the world. The Pack Creek drainage, which comprises less than 1 percent of the island's total landmass, was closed to bear hunting in the 1930s.
Today more than 1,200 people visit Pack Creek each year to watch bears fish, mate and raise their cubs. The Board of Game expanded the hunting closure 25 years ago at the request of two brown bear hunting guides, who recognized that there is plenty of room on Admiralty for hunters and non-hunters alike. The closure now reflects scientific research indicating that the home range of a brown bear in Southeast Alaska is up to 50 square miles.
It is this area -- less than a mile from Pack Creek itself -- that the Board of Game has proposed to open to hunting.
Hunting so close to a brown bear sanctuary would create a multitude of problems. First, it would effectively destroy 25 years of cooperation between the state and federal governments. These efforts have created a place unlike any other in the world, where bears and humans coexist peacefully.
These habituated bears, many of which have no fear of humans, frequently feed and sleep a few yards from human visitors. In more than 70 years of bear viewing at Pack Creek, no one has ever been injured by a bear, and no bear has ever been killed. Hunting these bears now would be a monumental betrayal and would violate any principle of "fair chase."
Hunting bears so close to the Stan Price State Wildlife Sanctuary would also jeopardize the safety of Pack Creek staff and visitors. These habituated bears cannot tell the difference between a hunter and a photographer. Should a bear be wounded by a hunter in Swan Cove, the next human it encounters may be a ranger or photographer at Pack Creek. I spend five months of every year working at Pack Creek, and this is a very real concern for all of us.
Finally, the economic loss to Juneau businesses would be tremendous. Pack Creek visitors pour millions of dollars into the local economy every year. Alive, a single bear at Pack Creek will be viewed by hundreds of people. Dead, that same bear would grace the home of but one person, who at most spent a few thousand dollars for the hunt.
Proponents of hunting near Pack Creek have offered a handful of tired, spurious arguments in their favor. They say that most of the bears at Pack Creek are females and cubs, while hunters target only adult males. In reality, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game reports that about 40 percent of the bears killed last year in Unit 4 (which includes Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof Islands) were females. This is not an insignificant number and indicates that even skilled hunters cannot reliably determine a bear's sex before pulling the trigger.
There is no scientific reason to change 25 years of balanced management at Pack Creek. I believe most Alaskans think there is enough room for everyone to enjoy our wildlife. I believe that shooting habituated bears is unethical. And I believe the changes proposed by the Board of Game will put my life and the lives of others in serious danger.
Juneau resident George Schaaf has worked as a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service at Pack Creek since 2003. The views here are his own.