The Alaska Board of Game decided Thursday that brown bears won't be hunted
during the next two years on state lands adjacent to the McNeil River State Game
Sanctuary, temporarily settling a grizzly-sized controversy that drew thousands
of impassioned comments from across the country.
But the board took several steps that could allow people to kill the salmon-eating bruins on nearby lands as soon as 2007, including one decision that cocked a bear hunt and aimed it at the National Park Service.
As in: Do a land trade or the bear gets it.
The board approved a proposal by Naknek area hunters to open chunks of state land south and southeast of the sanctuary to bear hunting, effective July 1, 2007. Board member Ron Somerville of Juneau said it would be a way to push the federal agency to start talking again with the state about trading the land for certain Katmai National Park parcels closer to Naknek, a request important to hunters in that community.
Board member Ted Spraker of Soldotna challenged the many people who oppose bear hunting around the famous McNeil bear sanctuary to "put pressure on the Park Service" to approve the land trade.
The move surprised the Park Service and the state Department of Natural Resources -- the two agencies that would negotiate such a trade.
The state has no active proposals to trade that land, and staff is already swamped with other issues, such as the natural gas pipeline corridor, said DNR spokeswoman Nancy Welch.
The Park Service has talked with the state about the land between Katmai park and the McNeil sanctuary for two decades, and would be willing to talk again, Park Service spokesman John Quinley said.
But the Game Board didn't have to threaten a bear kill to get things rolling, he added.
"It's an interesting action to come from the game management board, to apparently take a high level of interest in how land exchanges are pursued," Quinley said. "We would have been willing to go back to the table with the state if the state had approached us and said, 'Let's see if we can make a deal.' "
The action came during seventh day of the board's spring meeting, which continues through Sunday with discussions about predator control, changes in hunting regulations and a proposal to hold a moose hunt in Chugach State Park above the Anchorage Hillside.
The McNeil River sanctuary, located across Cook Inlet from Homer, next to Katmai National Park and Preserve, is one of the best places in the world to watch brown bears. Photographs of big brownies standing in swirling rapids as they snatch chum salmon have become icons for Alaska's wildlife. Proposals that might have allowed people to hunt these bears on state land generated a huge controversy.
State biologists presented information that showed that the same brown bears wander all over that area, including areas now open to hunting in the Katmai preserve and the land the board said it may open to hunting.
On Thursday morning, the board decided to leave the state game refuge north of the sanctuary closed to brown bear hunting. But the panel asked the Department of Fish and Game to work up a proposal that would allow bear hunting there and bring it to the board in March 2007.
Both Somerville and Spraker said they wanted the new proposal to be part of an overview of state management and conservation of those bears, and the clash of philosophies that's developed between bear viewing and bear harvest.
"There is no mutually exclusive conflict between viewing bears and hunting them -- if you view them as a population," Somerville said. Killing bears in a well-managed harvest is no "mortal sin."
Sport hunting advocate and guide Rod Arno said the board's move will give biologists time to show that the Katmai-McNeil bears remain healthy in number and can sustain a harvest on state land. "It's not going to hurt a bit," he said.
The board also rejected proposals to close or delay bear hunting in the Katmai preserve west of the sanctuary, saying conflicts between viewers and hunters could be tackled during the review in 2007.
Then the panel voted 5 to 2 to open state land south and southeast of the sanctuary to pressure the Park Service to trade.
Whether the board has the legal authority to participate in land trade negotiations was raised by board chairman Mike Fleagle, formerly of McGrath and now of Anchorage. And board member Ben Grussendorf of Sitka questioned whether the board was wise in appearing to endorse this particular trade.
Fleagle, a staunch supporter of hunting rights, also said that he thought the board should not be opening these areas to bear hunting.
"I'm fairly adamantly opposed to new closures," he said. But "I think we've established a longtime closure here that is depended upon by people who enjoy the bears. ... It's going to anger a lot of people for very little benefit, in my opinion."
Opponents of bear hunting openings in the area said they were relieved by the board's decision to keep the refuge closed, and floored by the vote to open areas to the south.
"We're happy that they didn't open the refuge and the sanctuary to hunting, but we're back to the same issue," said Karen Deatherage, with the local office of Defenders of Wildlife. "Why are they trying to fix something that's not broken?"
Wildlife activist Paul Joslin, a biologist for the conservation group Friends of McNeil River, said he's upset the board continued to pursue the issue.
"The public voice has been very clear on this issue," he said. "And now they're trading bears' lives to get the Park Service to do things."
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at email@example.com.