The Alaska Board of Game would like to kill more predators, but can't ask itself to do so. It told the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to write a proposal calling for a review of all hunting closures in South Central Alaska. The department did (Proposal 129), but left out refuges, notably the McNeil River State Game Refuge, that serves as a protective buffer for the world's top bear viewing site. After the proposal book was printed the department was instructed to issue a press release stating that refuges were to be included, thus opening the door to a possible Board of Game decision to allow brown bear hunting inside McNeil State Game Refuge.
Friends of McNeil River, supporters of increased protection for the McNeil bears, commissioned Dittman Research Corporation to find out where Alaskans stood on the issue. During February 3rd through 8th, 2005, Dittman Research Corporation interviewed 503 Alaskans over the age of 18, located in 64 communities across the state. They were told that "people have been viewing the world famous McNeil River brown bears for many years. On most of the land the bears occupy, brown bear hunting has been prohibited for decades".
Given this scenario, 70 % of Alaskans said they wanted either a reduction in hunting of bears or no change, while 20 % said they wanted an increase in hunting. When they were given more information, namely that "the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is opposed to any increased bear hunting pressure on the number of bears in the areas being proposed, and that the number of bears sighted in the McNeil area is at its lowest in 20 years", the differences between the two became more dramatic. Eighty-eight percent said they wanted a reduction in hunting or no change, while only 8 % said they favored an increase in hunting. The survey had a margin of error of less than 5 percent.
The study was telling in other ways. People in every major region of the state, including the rural community, were opposed to increasing bear hunting in the McNeil area. Perhaps most telling of all was that 78 % of hunters were opposed. As one Alaskan hunting family stated rather bluntly in their letter to the Board of Game in opposition to Proposal 129, "It is unethical to habituate a bear to the presence of people and then hunt it". Another hunting family stated, "We Alaskans had the foresight to set aside these bear areas long ago. Both Alaskan residents and tourists from around the world journey to view these magnificent creatures. This is a win-win economic source for Alaska."
The Dittman survey also asked, "Which of the following two groups would you personally rather have making a decision on whether or not McNeil bears should be hunted-a Board of Game composed only of hunters and trappers, or a Board of Wildlife composed of hunters, trappers AND people involved with wildlife in other ways, such as bear viewing, wildlife photography, and wildlife tourism?" A whopping 81 % said they would prefer to have a Board of Wildlife making the decision. Sixty-seven percent of hunters also said they would prefer that the decisions be made by a Board of Wildlife.
Only a handful of bears provide the bulk of the close viewing at McNeil, a process that has taken many years to develop. If "Teddy" or any other known bear takes a bullet, the shot will be felt the world over, and the hunting community will be scathed.
The Board of Game has an opportunity to show that it is sensitive to the needs of the bear viewing community and to do the right thing by most hunters by protecting the McNeil bears. Just about all of Alaska's state land is available for hunting bears.
For more information on the Board of Game proposals relating to the McNeil bears go to www.mcneilbears.org .
Public testimony before the Board of Game begins on Friday, March 4th at the Coast International Inn, Anchorage
Paul Joslin / 907-250 -5944 / firstname.lastname@example.org