Brown Bear Watching on Alaska's McNeil River
Alaska's McNeil River is one of the few places on earth where you can sit within whispering distance of wild brown bears and watch them nurse cubs, nap, and do everything else that comes naturally.
But while the McNeil experience remains extremely rich, in recent years it has been threatened by more than rain, mosquitoes, and cold winds. Bear numbers at the falls have dropped from average hourly counts of 55 bears in 1997 to 22 in 2005. That's well below the sanctuary's management plan's lower limit of 41 bears--a statistical threshold below which efforts to reverse the decline are to be initiated. Overall bear numbers in McNeil are the lowest ever recorded.
A decrease in the salmon runs appears to be a possible cause of this. After 1988 chum salmon runs diminished significantly up and down the coast, but by the late 1990s stocks in all other local streams resurged. All except McNeil, which continued to attract greater numbers of hungry bruins than the other streams. "One viable hypothesis," notes Fish and Game fisheries biologist Ted Otis, "is that the chum return dropped to a point low enough that the pressure from the bears has kept it from recovery." This would appear to be part of a natural dynamic balance: Fewer fish would lead to fewer bears; fewer bears would allow salmon runs to recover; recovery would, in the natural order of things, eventually attract more bears--if salmon were the only variable.
But the numbers of bears killed by hunters in the nearby Katmai Preserve and other areas surrounding McNeil--areas where McNeil bears are known to travel in the off-season--has increased 500 percent. An annual average of nine bears were taken in the early 1960s, but that has jumped to 54 since 1998. And at a time when the management plan would invoke greater protection for McNeil's bears, the Alaska Board of Game, an authority appointed by Governor Frank Murkowski, has voted to repeal the brown bear hunting closure in the nearby Kamishak Special Use Area. Now it's eyeing the refuge itself, parts of which, Aumiller notes, lie "within a rifle shot of the river." Unless the decision is reversed, trophy hunting of bears in the Kamishak is a done deal, and will commence in 2007.
The board's move, opposed overwhelmingly by Alaskans, the general public, and hunters (by 78 percent), appears ironic in three ways, say bear advocates. First, it directly counters the management plan goal for the sanctuary to maintain bear numbers at McNeil Falls. Second, such a move by a board allegedly representing hunters threatens the reputation of hunting and hunters nationwide by attempting to open fire on bears in an area where many of the animals wander about unafraid of humans. Third, the experience of recognizing that we can actually live in peace with these large and fearsome carnivores can lead to an inspired connection to the natural world. As hunters' numbers dwindle in our culture (down from 9 percent of the U.S. population in the 1980s to 5 percent today), their conservation efforts will need new allies. "If there is one place in Alaska to protect bears, the McNeil ecosystem is it," wrote Leo Keeler, a former president of Friends of McNeil River. Even Board of Game chairman Mike Fleagle judged that establishing these hunts is "going to anger a lot of people for very little benefit." Although Fleagle voted last spring to keep Kamishak closed, the verdict was five to two in favor of trophy hunting.
In recent years the current Board of Game has reinstated aerial wolf shooting in Alaska, ignoring the landslide victories of two ballot measures against the activity in 1996 and 2000. Now the board has indicated that at its March 2007 meeting it will review opening the McNeil Refuge to bear hunting.
Aumiller, a touch of gray invading his beard these days, looks for answers in the historic basis for establishing the sanctuary. "Do you want to make it all it can be, as the legislature intended? Or do you want to share it with hunting? Sharing is exactly what we do for most areas. But how about for just one area, you don't do that?"Deeply dismayed that his long-term building of trust in the McNeil bears may soon betray them into walking in front of a rifle, Larry Aumiller retired last October.
On the final day of my visit a year ago I paged through the visitors' entries in a journal in the cook cabin. "What an outstanding experience," scribbled David Hancock. "We are truly blessed."
"Thank you for the greatest wilderness experience of our lives," said John and Debbie Pendergraft.
Doubtless there will be arguments comparing the economic value of guided hunting with that of wildlife viewing. But trophy versus photo is not the crux here. The experience is. And the real hope for McNeil lies in the very essence carried away in the hearts of more than 6,000 permittees over the years who have come as close to brown bears as anyone on earth, and lived to tell about the experience and revel in it.
This story originally ran in the July-August 2006 issue as, "Power Lunch."