Thanks everyone who has sent in comments to Fish and Game. They have been enormously helpful in bringing the agency's attention to our concerns and the need for caution when it tinkers with the existing McNeil River Game Refuge and Sanctuary plans (Anchorage Daily News April 4, 2006).
Some of you received a response stating, "I am sorry you apparently have received misleading information," which is to say that your concerns are not justified. The trail of evidence as many of you know on a more personal level and which has been amply reported in the media (see below) tells a different story.
WHO CALLED FOR THE MCNEIL PLAN TO BE REVIEWED?
Governor Murkowski consultant and deputy chair of the Board of Game, Ron Somerville, is the man primarily responsible for calling for the review. He is an adamant supporter of bear hunting in both the McNeil River Game Refuge and Kamishak Special Use Area, and objects to their having ever been closed.
"There is no mutually exclusive conflict between viewing bears and hunting them -- if you view them as a population. Killing bears in a well-managed harvest is no "mortal sin."" (Somerville, Anchorage Daily News, March 11, 2005). "The sanctuary was never intended to encompass the entire range of the bears. That's what it's become for some people." (Somerville, Anchorage Daily News, March 4, 2005).
His viewpoint is shared by other Board of Game members. In March, 2005 they voted to approve hunting of bears in the Kamishak Special Use area beginning in 2007 and called for the Department of Fish and Game to bring forward a proposal to open the McNeil River Game Refuge to hunting at the Board's March, 2007 meeting. They also rejected proposals that would close or delay bear hunting in the Katmai preserve west of the refuge, the only place hunters are permitted to shoot McNeil bears. They did this despite the fact that the number of bears seen during aerial over flights had dropped precipitously and was correlated with hunters having shot 41 bears, or more than double what biologists said the population could sustain.
THE ALASKA OUTDOOR COUNCIL CONNECTION
Most of the Board of Game has close ties to the Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC), which serves as the NRA affiliate in Alaska, and describes itself on its website as one of the top lobbying organizations in the state. Somerville is the founder of the AOC.
So powerful is the influence of the AOC that it helped craft legislative language calling for the removal of the only permanent bear viewing camp within the refuge, a camp which had been in existence since 1978. The camp owners, the McBrides, were outspoken advocates for bear protection for viewing purposes that contributed to the elimination of bear hunting within the refuge (Homer News, July 25, 2005). When Rod Arno, the executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, was asked why the AOC took such action he said, "McBride was a bad neighbor, and it's good that he's gone. A good neighbor would have shared bear hunting and bear viewing. Its payback, but it's not personal. It's all part of the political process."
Following the legislative decision the McBrides offered to donate their entire operation consisting of several cabins and a lodge for educational purposes. However, before state employees had completed their negotiations for such a transfer and just prior to the March 2005 Board of Game meeting the establishment was deliberately burned to the ground (Anchorage Daily News, January 23, 2005). It was done in secret under instruction from the highest levels. Not even the McNeil Refuge manager was informed.
The policy of payback continues. David Bachrach had a permit for commercial bear-viewing camp in McNeil refuge in 2004 (Anchorage Daily News, April 23, 2006). After he testified against reopening the refuge to hunting at the Game Board's March 2005 meeting, Fish and Game did not reissue him the same permit for the next summer.
Officials told him they were not comfortable giving him the permit now that the Board of Game was shining a spotlight on the issue.
Larry Aumiller, who as we all know has dedicated half his life to making the McNeil bear viewing program the success that it is today, decided enough was enough and quit. He explained his reasoning in an opinion piece (Anchorage Daily News, October 15, 2005): "More than any other single person, I am responsible for habituating McNeil bears to humans. That means that through every single interaction for over 30 years, we have done everything humanly possible to get bears to accept our benign presence.
To purposely and knowingly kill these habituated animals for trophies is beyond any definition of reasonable ethics or fair chase and, I believe, is morally wrong. I've always envisioned that I'd be at McNeil River until I couldn't physically do it anymore. But I can't continue to remove the bears' only protection -- their natural wariness -- knowing that even more of them will soon be exposed to hunting."
Larry is not alone in his belief. Dittman Research Corporation, a widely respected firm, conducted a state wide polling survey regarding the McNeil bear issue. The results showed that an overwhelming majority of both hunters and voters are opposed to any expansion of McNeil bear hunting.
There are an estimated 40,000 brown bears in Alaska. They provide ample hunting opportunity without having the bears that provide the world with the ultimate viewing experience being part of the mix.
Please attend either tonight's meeting, 7:00 to 9:30 PM, at the Islands and Oceans in Homer or Tuesday night's meeting 7 to 9:30 at the Anchorage Senior Center, 1300 East 19th Avenue, and insist that bear viewing opportunity within the refuge as controlled by the permit process not be further restricted, but expanded.