Homer -- Rod Arno remembers guiding bear hunters in the country south of Kamishak Bay. It was the only place in his career where he led a client to a coastal brown bear and then, the next day, returned with another client to shoot a second trophy feeding on the un-salvaged remains of the first one.
That state land around the Douglas River was closed to hunting 20 years ago because a land trade with the National Park Service was under discussion. But the trade never took place, and now the state Board of Game, which begins its spring meeting today, is considering opening the area again.
Arno, a hunting activist for the Alaska Outdoor Council, likes that idea. He's even more enthusiastic about reopening a state game refuge farther north, where bear hunting was closed in 1995. One reason for that particular closure was an enhanced salmon run on the Paint River was expected to create a magnet for bears. But the salmon project flopped.
"That threat is null and void now," says Arno. "So if there's ever an area to be looked at again, this would be a dandy."
It may sound routine to review closed areas where conditions have changed -- especially with bear populations in the area looking healthy. But as the Game Board prepares to take a broad look at areas closed to hunting and trapping, a push by hunters for change in the two Kamishak Bay areas is drawing thousands of public comments. The reason: Sandwiched between those two areas is the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska's world-famous bear viewing destination.
In 1995, the last time the McNeil River bears were a full-blown issue in front of the board, bear viewing advocates exerted tremendous national pressure to close the refuge to the north, arguing it would be unethical to hunt "tame" bears that had grown used to humans.
Today, the forces against hunting in the area appear even stronger. Bear viewing flights have become a big and fast-growing part of Alaska's tourism industry, with brown bears between Katmai and Lake Clark national parks providing the biggest growth.
MCNEIL RIVER BEARS DECLINE
What's more, the number of bears fishing at the crown jewel -- McNeil River falls -- has plunged in recent years, with declining runs of chum salmon suspected as the main culprit. At the same time, bear hunters in the 2003-'04 season killed twice as many bears in the national preserve west of McNeil as they had in previous seasons. If anything, bear viewing advocates say, it's time for more hunting restrictions in the area, not fewer.
"Why are the hunters doing it?" asks Chris Day, who flies about 1,000 tourists every summer with her Homer-based bear viewing company, Emerald Air. "It just seems ludicrous to me. It's like sticking a stick in a hornet's nest."
The answer, which should play out in public testimony before the board beginning today, has a lot to do with statewide concerns and trends. Hunting advocates say it's time to take a stand at McNeil River on the philosophical position that the same bear population can be ogled by tourists in one valley and shot by hunters in the next.
"Even though it's controversial, I find it a healthy debate as we look around the state," says Ron Somerville, a hunting community leader finishing a two-year term on the Game Board.
An important factor may be political timing. Game Board members appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski have been highly sympathetic to predator control and other hunting priorities. Putting that political clout to the test at the 10-day meeting is likely to mean plenty of lunging, ear-flattening and other dominance displays familiar to past visitors to the McNeil River falls.
The bear-viewing industry is getting to be big business and will press for more hunting closures elsewhere, predicted board member Ted Spraker, a former state game biologist. He said the state's job is to keep bear populations healthy and often to separate viewers and hunters by seasons and areas. But it's not to ensure that old, large male bears sought by hunters are available for viewing, he said.
"What the viewing folks want is to go to where animals are not hunted at all," Spraker said.
Somerville said it's becoming a clash of two philosophies.
"The sanctuary was never intended to encompass the entire range of the bears. That's what it's become for some people," he said.
The McNeil River Sanctuary, where access is limited to state permit holders, is closed to hunting by law and will not be affected by the Game Board's deliberations. But the bears range 50 miles or more from the sanctuary's protection.
Arno sees another philosophical divide coming into play: between hunters who want to see healthy populations and viewers who become attached to individual bears.
"When I think of wildlife, I don't think of them in my anthropomorphic views of how they relate to my world," Arno said. "When I hunt, I think of relating to their world."
A COMPLICATED PICTURE
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn't have information about how many hunters use the area now. Because the region is relatively accessible by plane from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, it attracts both nonresidents hunting with guides and residents getting dropped off.
The two areas in question historically produced only a few brown bear kills every hunting season -- fewer than three on average around the Douglas River and three to six in the refuge around Paint River.
Not all hunters favor reopening the areas. Some, like guide Rob Hardy, say it would create unsporting opportunities. Hardy said the McNeil River effort is being pushed by "consumptive-use groups and the Second Amendment rights lobby" to regain some of the ground lost to hunting ever since the 1980 law created new national parks closed to hunters.
"For them, it's a no-brainer because the bear population is healthy," Hardy said.
Harvest numbers and other data -- such as the age of bears shot and the number of males -- suggest that the region's overall bear population is stable, said Lem Butler, the state's wildlife biologist in King Salmon.
Even so, there are problems that complicate the picture for hunting advocates.
On Katmai National Preserve west of McNeil River, where hunting is allowed, bear harvest numbers spiked from 19 to 34 in the last of the every-other-year hunting cycles.
State biologists attribute the rise to a longer season, more hunting pressure and unusually large salmon runs into the lake's tributaries. Even though fewer bears are being shot elsewhere in the game management subunit, the sharp local increase is a concern, said Butler.
The Kukaklek Lake area in the preserve was also the scene last summer of suspected poaching, with seven bears found dead in the brushy tundra.
At the same time, the numbers of bears seen fishing at the McNeil River falls has plummeted. Only 78 recognizable bears stopped at the falls last year, the lowest number in 20 years and barely half the number from 1997, according to a new state report.
"It's time to sound the alarm," said Fish and Game's official 2004 McNeil River field report, noting that bear numbers have fallen below the threshold called for under the state's management plan.
Hunting outside the sanctuary may have contributed to the decline, along with poor chum runs, the state report said. The report said loss of wary bears would have little impact, but killing particular stars of the sanctuary, such as the cub-suckling "Teddy," would be "catastrophic."
BEAR WATCHERS TO TESTIFY
Public testimony, which begins Saturday in Anchorage, will include plenty of bear watchers. Karen Deatherage, the Defenders of Wildlife Alaska associate, said she has already turned in 6,000 written comments to the state. Opposition to expanded hunting has also been registered by several Fish and Game advisory committees and the Homer City Council.
Deatherage said a controversial idea like opening the McNeil River Game Refuge should come as a separate proposal from the public with advance notice, not as part of a general review of closed areas.
Fish and Game is taking a cautious approach. It is recommending that the board cut back October hunting in the Katmai Preserve, either with a shorter season or creation of a permit-only hunt. Elsewhere, the department supports the status quo, which would keep the state game refuge and other state-owned land in the area, including the inholding around Douglas River in Katmai National Park, closed to hunting.
Katmai National Park also supports shortening the state-managed hunting season on its preserve and keeping the other state areas closed to hunting. Park superintendent Joe Fowler said hunting in the small reopened areas would have a significant impact on "unrivaled" bear-viewing uses in the surrounding closed areas.
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at email@example.com or in Homer at 907-235-4244
Testimony before Alaska Board of Game begins today
* THE MEETING: The Alaska Board of Game will meet on Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska issues today through March 13 at the Coast International Inn, 3333 W. International Airport Road, Anchorage.
* HOW TO TESTIFY: Public testimony will begin today, following staff reports and run through the weekend. You can sign up to testify beginning at 8 a.m. today. The deadline to sign up won't be announced until this morning by board chairman Mike Fleagle. Call 1-800-764-8901 for updates.
* THE AGENDA: The board will consider a wide array of hunting and trapping proposals affecting the region. In addition to a review of all closed areas in the region, the board will face several high-profile issues, including:
* Expanding (or cutting back) predator control programs aimed at reducing wolf populations;
* Hunting moose in the Anchorage Bowl;
* Developing a new system for allocating subsistence permits for the popular Nelchina caribou hunt; and
* Reopening areas adjacent to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for brown bear hunting or cutting back hunting on the nearby Katmai National Preserve.
* FURTHER INFORMATION: The tentative meeting agenda, details on proposals and Department of Fish and Game recommendations are available on the state Web site at