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Let's Look at Bears Like Grown-Ups

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Mead Treadwell  / February 11, 2005

From Homer on a summer day, fly due west. Across Cook Inlet, past the St. Augustine volcano, at high tide, you can land a floatplane at Chenik Lagoon.

At Chenik Creek, brown bears make this their romping and chomping ground. Until Jan. 5, a bear-viewing camp stood nearby, built over many years with the permission of those in charge.

The Chenik Brown Bear Camp was first class. The wood stove between the kitchen and dining room made it cozy. Cabins and an outhouse sat behind the lodge. A driftwood plank patio let you soak up the sun. The sauna had windows to ensure you didn't step out naked into the arms of a grizzly.

Famous photographers held workshops here. On film and in print, Chenik bears were enjoyed by millions. In winter, the camp provided refuge for lost hunters and pilots -- a great Alaska tradition.
But this winter, Jan. 5, a helicopter chartered by Alaska's Department of Fish and Game flew in, and the buildings -- worth hundreds of thousands of dollars -- were torched. As the smoke clears, it has become obvious this was more than the state exercising its prerogative as owner. This was a rash skirmish in the "culture war" between people who appreciate bears -- some who hunt them, some who view them.

The public needs to demand a truce in this battle. And several questions sparked by this disagreeable incident need answers:

1. Who gave the order to torch the buildings? Why?

2. Two years ago, I joined a meeting of civic leaders with our governor's staff to try to save the camp. Michael and Diane McBride, the builders, were specifically asked then not to burn the buildings down. Instead, the buildings were turned over to the state intact. How and when did the state change its mind, or were those lighting the torch rogue state employees?

3. Several nonprofit entities and university programs expressed interest in using the camp for research and education. What happened?

4. The camp was turned over to the state because Alaska's Legislature had passed a law. Camp builders, and previous landowners -- the Bureau of Land Management and Seldovia Native Association -- weren't asked to testify. The law said the state could receive the land at Chenik only if no commercial operations remained. Since when does a Republican Legislature -- one that has gone to bat to protect inholders on public land all over the state -- instead go to war with a small tourism business?

5. Some pro-hunting advocates say limits on bear viewing help protect hunting. People give names to bears in places like this and mourn when they don't return. Bears get used to people. A refuge, some say, should be off limits to viewers and hunters. Commercial fishing interests sometimes fight bear viewing too, as extra escapement of salmon is sought to feed the congregation of bears. For gosh sakes, isn't there some way we can all get along?

I hunt, and I have long supported hunting organizations, which are prime movers for habitat protection and wildlife conservation. I am also an avid bear viewer. I work with many people on all sides of this issue and don't mean to embarrass any of them. But state-sanctioned arson has embarrassed us all.
In Alaska, the places one can stand in line, join a waiting list or win a lottery to go to see large groups of bears -- Pack Creek in Southeast, McNeil River, Lake Clark and Katmai on the west side of Cook Inlet -- are rare, good things. I relish the "uncontrolled" places I've traveled to view majestic bears -- Chenik, Big River Lakes, Kodiak -- and have never seen bears misbehave, only people.

Bear viewers and bear hunters have a common interest in healthy, wild bear populations. Let's put away our torches and figure this out like grown-ups.

Mead Treadwell is a commissioner with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and a senior fellow at the Institute of the North.


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