The McNeil River Sanctuary is the world's best bear viewing area. A recent Daily News story on the "culture war between bear hunters and bear viewers" foreshadows more threats to bear viewing. It is widely thought that the burning of Chenik Camp was a reprisal and the latest step in the process to steamroll wildlife viewing interests. Since the Board of Game's track record favors killing predators, I wonder how long McNeil River will survive as a world-class bear viewing site.
In 1991, Friends of McNeil River filed a lawsuit to ensure bear viewing would not be harmed by construction of the Paint River fish ladder, only three miles from the sanctuary. Legislators, recognizing more protection of bears near the sanctuary was needed, established the McNeil River State Game Refuge. Management of the refuge must support bear viewing in the sanctuary, but the Board of Game was left to decide if hunting would continue (AS 16.20.041.b). The board was composed entirely of Alaska Outdoor Council members.
Bear harvest around the McNeil Sanctuary in the early 1990s exceeded what the population could support and targeted mostly young bears, averaging only 6 years old. While under pressure to enact an emergency closure to temporarily stop bear hunting, members of the board of Game actually told viewing advocates, "If you don't hunt, we don't want to hear from you." However, an international outcry fanned by CBS news coverage convinced the Board by a 4 to 3 margin to close bear hunting in the refuge.
In the early 1990s the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (with help from a citizen's advisory group) established guidelines to measure the use of McNeil Falls by bears. A minimum level of bears to meet viewing objectives was defined, and Fish and Game committed to taking action when numbers went below that level. Recent bear numbers have fallen so low that the minimum level objective has not been met in the last five years, and 2004 was the lowest recorded number of bears in decades.
However, in 2002, when I asked the board to reduce hunting pressure in areas McNeil bears were known to frequent, I was ignored and ridiculed. The political decision-makers in Fish and Game and the Board appeared only concerned with increasing harvests. Hunting reductions were, and are, always a last resort.
In the McGrath area, even with a bull-cow ratio of 6 bulls per 100 cows and Fish and Game studies proving the area is over-hunted, board of Game chairman Mike Fleagle supported local residents' calls to remove wolves and bears and avoid hunter restrictions, even though hunting was the problem. With this type of leadership and a new board comprising six out of seven active AOC members, predators will always lose.
The current Board of Game has approved aerial wolf control in areas Fish and Game objected to and could not scientifically justify. It has dismissed the criticism of more than 100 wildlife professionals that formally challenged the current predator control programs, because, in part, Fish and Game and the board have ignored advice developed by the National Research Council.
However, if there is one place in Alaska to protect bears, the McNeil ecosystem is it. At its March meeting, the board will consider proposals 129 and 137 that will threaten McNeil bear viewing. It will also consider proposals 29 and 30 that would provide further protection for McNeil River and Katmai bears.
Will the board allow McNeil to become just another river where a few bears catch fish? What will it take to have Alaska's wildlife management represent all Alaskans? A Board of Wildlife is needed now more than ever.
If wildlife viewing advocates remain silent, they can say goodbye to the uniqueness of McNeil River.
Visit www.akwildlife.com for details and then write the Board of Game by Friday at Boards Support Section, P.O. Box 25526 Juneau 99802-5526 to oppose proposals 137 and 129 and to support proposals 29 and 30.
Leo Keeler is a former president of Friends of McNeil River, nominee to the Board of Game in 2000 (quickly rejected by the Legislature) and member of the McGrath Adaptive Management Team.