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Bear-Viewing, Bear-Hunting Debate Heats Up

Carey James, Homer Tribune / Al Grillo, The Associated Press /
February 21, 2005

One with nature: Bear viewers watch a sow in July 2004 as she ambles to the falls at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. When word spread that a bear-viewing camp near Chenik Lake on the south side of Cook Inlet was burned in early January, it brought to light the recurring clash over the management of the bears that live in the McNeil River area.HOMER - When word spread that the state burned a bear-viewing camp near Chenik Lake on the south side of Cook Inlet in early January, it rekindled a clash over the management of state lands and the bears that live in the McNeil River area.

The debate has made its way to Homer because camp owners Diane and Michael McBride live here and because of the growing number of tourists who use Homer as a jumping off point to the McNeil River Falls, a popular spot for bear-watching on the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary as well as other bear-viewing areas.

Several businesses in the area focus on bear viewing alone while others offer bear viewing along with a variety of flight-seeing options.

Beginning March 4, the state Board of Game meets to discuss proposals for regulation changes to lands surrounding the sanctuary that would permit bear hunting, a move that some say could hurt the bear-viewing industry.

Additionally, the board will review all state lands with restricted use, such as the sanctuary, where bear hunting has been banned since 1967. Other proposals ask the board to limit bear hunting along several rivers in the Katmai National Preserve, west of the sanctuary, which bear-hunting proponents say is an unjustified restriction on their right to hunt.

Homer - While the burning of a bear-viewing camp built by Michael and Diane Mcbride at Chenik head came as a surprise to some, it should not have, contend state officials.

Others, however, contend the camp was burned abruptly as an act of revenge against bear-viewing proponents who have long argued against bear hunting in the McNeil River area, a popular bear-viewing area.

According to Tina Cunning, Fish and Game special assistant, several years of analysis and review preceded the decision to destroy the camp.

The decision was made in 2001 and confirmed in 2003, she said.

"The department did an extensive analysis of the buildings and the options for use of the buildings that included all divisions of the department," she said. "Many different options were evaluated as well as the costs associated with having such a facility in a remote location and the conclusions at that time were that those facilities were inconsistent with the refuge plan, were not needed by the department, were costly to maintain and were a liability to the state."

But while cunning and others may have been aware that the camp burning was imminent, not everyone was. the center for Alaskan coastal studies was discussing a possible plan to use the camp as an education facility with state land managers, who were apparently unaware of the decision to burn the facility. cunning said the state had taken no official position or issued a response to the center's proposal. though the McBrides closed the camp in 2000, Diane McBride said they held out hope that the buildings would be put to good use.

"The property was a valuable public resource," she said. "I think it's an expense and a waste and a tragedy. it could have been a great resource for Alaskans." Among those opposed to opening the land in and around the sanctuary as well as the McNeil River State Game Refuge to the north are Ken and Chris Day, owners of Emerald Air Service, which offers bear-viewing trips from Homer.

Chris Day said their main concern is that bears that have grown accustomed to the constant presence of humans will be easy prey for hunters. The bears in this area would be better managed as a resource viewed by many rather than hunted for the benefit of a few, she said.

"Were concerned as individuals and a commercial operation that does bear viewing," she said. "Bears will just be simply slayed over there."

But hunting proponents contend hunting bears in land surrounding the sanctuary has occurred for decades without noticeable detriment to the bears. While some bears, especially the young males, do become accustomed to people, older bears know to be wary when they are away from the falls, they contend.

"What the bear-viewing, anti-hunter groups would like is an entire population of brown bears that aren't hunted anywhere," said Rod Arno, a hunting advocate for the Alaska Outdoor Council. "Bears are a renewable resource. Humans can't take more than 5 percent of the bears, so there are always more bears around that you can look at."

Arno said the council is optimistic that the upcoming meeting with the board will allow their positions to be heard more clearly than in years past.

All but one member of the board was replaced after Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski was elected and, since then, the board has approved several programs aimed at predator control, including a controversial aerial wolf-kill program.

This year, the board is reviewing the rationale behind the closed or hunting-restricted state lands.

Joe Meehan, refuge lands coordinator, said the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is protected not only by a Board of Game regulation but by Alaska statute as well.

In the refuge to the north of the sanctuary, however, the board has the final say on whether brown bear hunting is permitted.

Meehan said the Department of Fish and Game will make recommendations to the board. In the past, Meehan said, the department has recommended that some areas in and around popular bear-viewing spots not be opened to hunting.

"Opening these lands in the past has not been determined to be consistent with protecting the resource," he said, adding that Fish and Game has supported, opposed and remained neutral on various areas being opened for hunting there.

Bear-viewing proponents contend the industry is important enough to the area that people should be concerned about its future. Virtually every poster and advertisement for Alaska features a brown bear, and news that the state is not protecting the resource would not be popular in the Lower 48, they contend.

"Its worth much more to the state as a viewed commodity than as a hunted commodity," Day said.

Derotha Ferraro, director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said that fewer than half of visitors request information on bear-viewing trips in advance of their visits to Homer. When they arrive, however, most want to know about the trips, she said. But when they find out that the trips are typically all-day affairs that cost upward of $500, the interest drops dramatically, she said.

Still, interest in bear viewing has obviously increased in popularity. Day said it used to be something only the outdoor adventurers would consider, but over the last seven or eight years, it has become more mainstream.

"Now it seems like everybody that has a boat or a plane is offering some sort of bear-viewing trip," she said.

>From Arno's perspective, that's one reason he'd like to see bear viewing managed more often as it is at McNeil River, where only 10 people are permitted per day between June 7 and Aug. 25, the times when salmon runs on the river draw dozens of bears to the area.

"In my opinion, millions of people taking pictures is impacting that resource much more by habituating them to humans than we are by selectively harvesting them," he said.

Adding to the controversy at McNeil River is a documented decline in the number of bears visiting the river. While no one is calling the bear population in crisis, questions abound over the ebb.

Last year, 78 individual bears were counted on the falls throughout the summer, down from a high of 144 in 1997. Meehan said. Many suspect the lack of salmon in the river is to blame for the bear decline, and some suspect the fluctuation is a natural occurrence. But others worry that the numbers may be an indication that the bear population is stressed.

"Basically, the number of bears has fallen below a level identified as being significant to the point that it may impact the visitor program there," Meehan said.

Bear viewers contend that it matters less that a certain percentage of bears might be killed by hunters than if a few bears that provide much of the viewing opportunity were taken.

"There's a handful of core bears that give a really good viewing opportunity for people," Day said. "If you shoot one of those bears you do deplete the viewing experience."


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