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McNeil Brown Bear Hunting Controversy

Matthew Simon / CBS 11 / KTVA-TV / February 22, 2007

As Alaska Board of Game members feel the pressure from both sides whether or not to overturn their decision allowing brown bear hunting near the McNeil River brown bear viewing area, there is more controversy Thursday night.

That's because State Fish and Game officials are recommending Board of Game members go ahead and overturn that decision. They say it could hurt Alaska's image. That's sparked many hunters to ask if tourists' interests are being considered ahead of some Alaskans.

If you ask the Wildlife Conservation director he will say, point blank, this recommendation is absolutely not an Alaska verses Lower 48 case. He says Fish and Game officials felt obligated to make the proposal, because a lot of Alaskans and tourists sent Fish and Game letters and e-mails opposing the move.

After an investigation, we're told officials found only a small number of bears would end up being hunted. The man who represents 12,000 Alaska hunters says the final answer should be about what's fair for everyone.

"I mean, I've got brown bear pieces all over the place. They're real important to me. In fact, I named my daughter, my first daughter, Ursula, which is she bear," said Alaska Outdoor Council Director, Rod Arno.

If you picture the folks who want Board of Game members to open up land near the McNeil River viewing area for hunting as someone evil or uneducated, Arno might surprise you.

"That was my whole livelihood. So, I spent 40 years as a brown bear hunting guide," said Arno.
Arno tells Alaskan tales of guiding bear hunts from the North Slope to the Kenai Peninsula--and yes--even where the McNeil refuge is now located, before it closed.

"The fact that right there at McNeil we hunted those same bears that people were viewing for 25 years. For 25 years they didn't have any problem at the viewing platform on McNeil," said Arno.

Because of the way he saw it before, Arno says he, and the 12,000 Alaskan hunters he represents, do not buy Fish and Game officials' argument that those McNeil brown bears need year-round protection.

"If you have established a sanctuary site, like the viewing at McNeil falls, and you have no bear hunting, and then the bears leave that, then are you going to protect those bears everywhere? Because if that's the case, it'll be really hard to get new sanctuaries created," said Arno.

And that, Arno says, is what Alaskan hunters fear. They think the folks who view bears are going to expand the closures around the sanctuaries, setting a precedent of less hunting places. The bottom line for hunters is that they'd like to see a solution fair for everyone.

"Not only that, but to be able to create new viewing areas, without the fear that, once they're created, that those populations will be expected to be protected once they're out of the newly-created sanctuaries," said Arno.

The Board of Game meeting is scheduled for March 2, through the 12. It has been widely reported their chairman is not predicting how the board will vote.

To contact Matthew, call 907-273-3186.

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