McNeil River bears are worldwide icons, lifetime memories for those fortunate enough to watch the big brownies fish in their natural habitat.
Can we spare a few more for hunters, and should we?
The answer to that question depends on the answers to two other questions.
The first is this: Would a hunt of brown bears grown tolerant of people at McNeil River Falls be a fair-chase hunt? Larry Aumiller, former head of the McNeil River sanctuary who has spent much of his professional life bringing bears and people together, says no. Rod Arno, a hunting guide and president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, says yes, arguing that brown bears regain their wariness when they leave the bear-viewing grounds.
Bruce Bartley, information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, points out that McNeil bears spend only about six or seven weeks at the sanctuary's salmon-rich waters in the summer. When the salmon dwindle, the bears head for the berries of higher ground. When they're not at the sanctuary, they go wherever bears go, and presumably cross ground that's open to hunting -- in the Katmai preserve to the west, for one example. Yet many of the same bears come back year after year, becoming familiar enough to earn nicknames. If they had become unwary of humans, more of them would be trophies by now.
So would such a hunt be fair chase? Matt Robus, Fish and Game's director of wildlife conservation, says the huge variability in bear behavior means there's "not a cut-and-dried answer." As Mr. Bartley says, it's a matter of opinion. But as he also points out, to protect all McNeil River bears, you'd have to close the entire surrounding area to hunting, including areas that are open now, because the bears range that far. That's unlikely to happen.
The state Board of Game is up against a tough principle: You don't shoot Smokey, and McNeil bears have an even more exalted status than the old symbol of forest stewardship because they're real. Any notion that the state is about to enlarge the area where they can be hunted just doesn't sit well, especially with those who have watched them.
Those opposed to the opening include the Alaska Professional Hunters Association. The association's reasoning is practical -- the chance to take a few more bears isn't worth the controversy, and Alaska offers other hunting grounds.
There's also the question of fewer bears visiting McNeil River Falls in recent years while brown bear harvests have been up in the area. Rather than expand the hunt, it makes sense to wait and learn the reason for the smaller numbers.
The Board of Game will reconsider its decision to open state land south and east of the sanctuary at meetings beginning Friday in Anchorage. As it stands now, those lands will be open to a hunt beginning Oct. 1; rules allow only five permits every two years.
That's hardly a call to open season. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, feeling the heat of strong public opposition to the opening, has advised the Board of Game to reverse its decision. Staffers believe the expanded hunt satisfies requirements for both fair chase and sustainability, but would be a slap in the face to a public convinced the McNeil bears need more protection, not less. And that slap could be detrimental to Alaska hunters in the future.
The board should heed the advice. Better to err, if error this is, on the side of conservation.
BOTTOM LINE: Maintain the status quo for bear hunting and protection near the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.