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Pressure Builds to Stop McNeil Bear Hunt

Bears: Agency receives a flood of mail opposing nearby opening

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / February 22, 2007

Flooded with critical e-mails and letters, state fish and game officials want the Board of Game to undo its recent decision allowing bear hunts near one of the world's premier bear-viewing areas.

The staff recommendation says bear numbers near the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary are healthy and won't be jeopardized by the first hunt in 22 years.

But letting hunters kill a few bears on land south and east of the sanctuary -- as close as 10 miles from bear-busy McNeil River Falls -- could tarnish the image of hunting in Alaska, said Matt Robus, state wildlife conservation director.

"It does not seem to be a good trade to make," Robus said.

Bear viewing has grown significantly on the upper Alaska Peninsula, with tourists flocking to the sanctuary and other nearby areas to photograph bears as they snatch fish from rivers and loll in grass.

Department of Fish and Game staffers opposed the bear hunt two years ago -- citing the same reasons they do now -- but the Game Board voted to allow the hunt then, Robus said.

The first hunt is scheduled for October, unless the board overturns its decision at a meeting March 2-12 in Anchorage. Board Chairman Ron Somerville wouldn't predict how the board will vote.

More than 8,200 brown bears prowl the peninsula, according to Fish and Game. Hunters killed about 335 brown bears there between 2001 and 2005. Bear harvests increased in the last couple of years on federal land west of the sanctuary.

On the state land near the sanctuary, no more than five bear-hunt permits will be allowed every two years to keep the bear numbers sustainable, under the Game Board decision.

Fish and Game Department employees have received a steady stream of letters since last fall, about a dozen a week, Robus said.

None of the comments favor a bear hunt, he said.

Bears that wander just feet from cameras in the sanctuary and other areas have become popular with viewers, some even earning nicknames.

Critics of the plan fear those bears will be shot, hurting the bear-viewing industry, he said. They also question hunting ethics that would allow hunters to blast bears that have become somewhat accustomed to humans.

Many of the writers say they're hunters, said Robus.

The hunt would take place outside the sanctuary on 95,000 acres of state-owned land. Bears there and elsewhere on the upper Alaska Peninsula can range across a large area that includes the sanctuary, as well as Lake Clark and Katmai national parks.

Bear numbers at the McNeil River Falls have fallen in recent years, with only 78 stopping there in 2004, barely half the number from 1997. Some blame the increased bear harvests. Others say the bears have moved to other rivers with stronger salmon runs.

Although bear viewing at McNeil has long been limited to around 200 visitors a year, bear viewing in the region has swelled in the last 10 years. People have more places to watch the animals elsewhere without the hassle of applying for a permit to the sanctuary, said Joe Meehan, sanctuary manager.

A record 32,000 bear watchers visited the upper Alaska Peninsula last year, Meehan estimated.

Rod Arno, head of the pro-hunting Alaska Outdoor Council, said he's disturbed the department bowed to public pressure in its recommendation. It should have based its advice on the fact that bear numbers can support a hunt and still be sustainable.

Bear viewing and hunting took place for 25 years before the state ended hunting near the sanctuary in the mid-1980s, he noted.

"They (bears) are part of a larger ecosystem and they should be managed accordingly," he said.

Somerville voted for the hunt two years ago. Hunters from a village in the region requested it, he said. He also wanted to seek additional public comment.

Somerville wouldn't say how he'll vote this time around.

On one hand, the board needs to manage the state's resources for the maximum benefit of the people, he said. Conceptually, a small hunt could satisfy hunters without reducing bear populations for viewers, he said.

"The McNeil sanctuary was closed to protect viewing bears ... not to protect the population wherever it went," he said.

On the other hand, the overwhelming public comment needs to be considered, he said.

Jim Stratton, Alaska head of the National Parks Conservation Association, said he plans to deliver 11,000 opposition e-mails and letters at the meeting.

Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage received more than 500 individually written letters after posting a video on YouTube that included scenes of fish-munching McNeil bears, said John Toppenberg, director.

The group dropped off the letters with Game Board officials last week.

Toppenberg was impressed by "the depth of feeling from people across the world who believe the bears are ... a world-class treasure," he said.

Another 300 letters went directly to the board's Juneau office. Scott Crass, a staffer, worked the holiday weekend to read and summarize them for the board.

Only one letter writer supported a hunt, he said. The writer said the board shouldn't bow to political pressure.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com or 257-4310.

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