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Board of Game Kills Hunt for McNeil Area Bears

McNeil River Area:  Public outcry leads panel to reverse a two-year-old decision

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / March 7, 2007

 

Persuaded by a flood of public testimony, the Board of Game unanimously voted Tuesday not to allow bear hunting on state lands near one of the world's premier bear-viewing areas.

"It's a clear win for photographers and a clear win for the bears," said John Toppenberg, head of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage, after the vote.

The Alaska Game Board voted two years ago to allow the hunt on land -- two parcels totaling about 95,000 acres -- south and east of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.

This decision would taken effect this July, opening the way for a hunt in October for the first time in 22 years.

The board bowed to public testimony provided at the meeting, which began Friday, as well as thousands of letters and e-mails that overwhelmingly opposed the hunt, Chairman Cliff Judkins of Wasilla said.

"Thirty years ago, you could have handled these issues just on biology," he said. "Today you can't. This is what the public wants, and viewing is a recognized use."

Every summer, thousands of tourists visit the sanctuary and nearby areas on the Alaska Peninsula to photograph bears as they snatch fish from rivers and loll in grass.

Opponents said hunting these bears is unethical because they're relatively used to people and won't run from hunters.

More than 8,200 brown bears prowl the peninsula, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Hunters kill about 320 every two years.

State biologists said a small program -- about two to three bear-hunt permits could have been issued a year -- wouldn't endanger the bear population in the area.

But they opposed the idea, saying the critical testimony, including from many hunters, could have hurt the state's reputation with hunters around the world.

The board did the right thing, said Rod Arno, head of the pro-hunting Alaska Outdoor Council. He supported a hunt but said the board was "politically correct."

"It just shows me that there's more will to close it, and that's fine with me," he said.

The state shouldn't create any other bear-viewing areas, he said.

"We're pretty jazzed," said Jim Stratton, Alaska-region director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

His group collected more than 10,000 comments against the hunt, he said. He presented them Saturday when he spoke before the Game Board.

Despite what some people think, the board listens to the public, board member Ron Somerville said.

The board originally passed the proposal to help Naknek and King Salmon villagers who wanted a hunt, he said.

The state bear sanctuary, and the 95,000 acres that were proposed for hunting, lie east of those villages, across Katmai National Park and Preserve. The board wants the federal government to add the 95,000 acres to the national park in exchange for lands on the west side of the park, closer to the villagers.

The board had originally hoped the hunting proposal would compel the agency to accept the long-sought land swap, Somerville said.

The villagers complain that park regulations prohibit them from using off-road vehicles such as ATVs on portions of a trail that zig-zags through the park, limiting their access to hunting grounds.

The National Park Service plans to begin a public process this year that will allow the vehicles on the trail, agency officials wrote in a letter to Somerville in February.

"At least they're trying to resolve that," Somerville said.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com.

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