Commentary March 2007
For thirty years the wild Alaskan bears that visit McNeil sanctuary have learned to trust the people who watch them. But this fall, despite a public outcry, those bears may be hunted. |
[See author update below.]
By Bill Sherwonit
On a bright August morning, with gulls screeching and bald eagles picking at spawnedout salmon, Im standing with ten other people in the shadows of an alder-topped bluff. Our backs are pressed tightly against a dank rock wall. Everyones attention is drawn to the left, where the bluff ends abruptly in a blind corner.
Douglas D. Hill, whos guiding our group, had peeked around that corner only moments earlier, then ordered the rest of us to stand quietly against the wall and remain absolutely still. Several more moments pass. Now, hardly daring to breathe, we watch as an adult brown bear rounds the corner, as if in slow motion, and angles our way. Passing within less than twenty feet of our party, the 600-pound animal scarcely acknowledges our presence as she squishes through mud and wades into the stream that flows before us.
That in itself is enough to send adrenal glands into overdrive. Imagine the tension, then, when two small cubs step gingerly into view and turn our way. Unlike their mom, the cubs eye us intently and pick up their pace, clearly anxious. But not so anxious that they run or cry or give us a wide berth. Barely larger than the teddy bears awarded as carnival prizes, the dark-chocolate spring cubs scoot past our wall-pinned bodies, no more than ten feet away. Several yards beyond us the cubs wrestle with each other, perhaps a release of tension. Then they lope toward their mother, intently hunting salmon in the swirling, muddied water.
Anyone passionate about brown bears will instantly guess where our encounter took place. It can only be McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, a 200-square-mile parcel of coastland situated on the upper Alaska Peninsula, some 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. McNeil is the standard against which all other bear-viewing sites are measured. Established in 1967 and managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the sanctuary protects the worlds largest gathering of brown bearsthe coastal cousins of the grizzlies. As many as a hundred bears come to McNeil River Falls every summer to feed on chum salmon. Its not uncommon for visitors to see dozens of brown bears at a time congregating by the fails.
The McNeil bears are now threatened. The Alaska Board of Game, which has jurisdiction over McNeil and several surrounding areas, has voted to allow hunting in the Kamishak Special Use Area, adjacent to McNeil to the east and south [see map above]. Both before and after the salmon return to McNeil River, the bears fan out throughout the region, often far beyond the McNeil sanctuary. Tagging and radio-collar studies in this area have shown that some bears travel hundreds of miles in a year and that many McNeil bears venture into the Kamishak Special Use Area. So if open hunting there remains legal, it is only a matter of time before trophy seekers kill some of McNeils most tolerant and approachable bears.
Protecting the McNeil bears is the stated mission of the Alaska Department offish and Game, which is why it established a permit system to keep human visitors at the site to a minimum. A state-run lottery attracts as many as 1,400 applicants, but permits are granted to just ten people at a time for consecutive four-day periods from early June through late August. Visitors take their seats on folding chairs placed side by side on two gravel pads within a hundred feet of the falls.
Many people are surprised by the bears neutral attitude toward their fans. Think about it, says Larry Aumiller, McNeils former manager. Youve got this group of people standing in the middle of dozens of bears. Youre very close to where they want to be. And they tolerate you.
Before the McNeil experiment, many bear experts thought that habituated bears, particularly browns and grizzlies, were extremely dangerous because they had lost their natural shyness of humans. But Aumiller showed that habituated bears that have not learned to associate humans with food treat people as neutral objects, maybe as innocuous as rocks or trees. Still, habituated bears remain wild; they should not be confused with tamed animals. As Werner Herzogs widely released documentary film about Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly, Man, made clear to a worldwide audience, carelessly approaching any bear in the wild can have fatal consequences.
Because of the precautions that Aumiller and his staff have taken, no McNeil bears have attacked or injured anyone in more than three decades of close association with people. And no bears have had to be killed because they presented a danger. Those facts demonstrate that these bears are safe to be around if people are willing to adjust their behavior. What goes on here is still news to a lot of people, Aumiller says. They dont think it can happen. But it does. McNeil shows that if you learn about something thats different from you, and begin to appreciate it, then youll figure out a way to keep it in your life. Youll learn to peacefully coexist.
When he first came to McNeil, Aumiller didnt think he d stay more than a season or two. But two years became three, then five, and he found himself in love with both the landscape and its ursine residents. Here was a place he could stay forever.
By the mid-1980s, the "Bear Man of McNeil" was something of a local legend. And by the early 1990s, he had become widely recognized as one of the worlds leading authorities on brown bears. Aumiller himself always pooh-poohed such acclaim. He humbly insisted (while adapting another cliche) that the more he learned about bears, the more he realized just how little he knew.
Yet as two decades at McNeil turned into three, Aumiller was beginning to contemplate what he once imagined impossible: resigning his position. Married, with a young daughter, he found it harder to spend his summers in the wilderness. An even bigger issue, though, was wildlife politics.
In 2002 Frank H. Murkowski, a Republican, was elected governor of Alaska, bringing new threats to McNeils bears and heartache to Aumiller. No friend of bears and wolves, the governor was strongly endorsed by the Alaska Outdoor Council, a self-styled "sportsmens group." AOCs leaders are strong advocates of hunters rights and predator control, and for years the group has pushed for increased opportunities for bear hunting on state lands near McNeil. By the time of the spring 2005 meeting of the Alaska Board of Game (BOG), Murkowski had appointed enough AOC allies to it to make that wish come true. The BOG, which reports to the governor, determines whether hunting is allowed on federal, state, and private lands.
At the same time, McNeils bears were receiving a huge outpouring of public support, expressed by thousands of written comments, as well as in public testimony of dozens of Alaska residents, including many hunters. Yet despite the outcry, and despite a substantial drop in the population of McNeils bears since the late 1990s, the board voted to approve a new bear hunt in the Kamishak. (The details of the hunt, scheduled for fall 2007 and spring 2008, have yet to be worked out.) The population decline was most likely caused by diminished salmon returns and by increased brown bear hunting in Katmai National Preserve, another tract bordering McNeil, which is managed by the federal government. In fact, the number of bears legally killed in the areas surrounding McNeil has jumped to forty-five in 2005, more than double the number in the early 1980s.
Disheartened by the BOGs actions, Aumiller chose to leave his beloved job after the 2005 season, his thirtieth at McNeil. In an opinion piece for the Anchorage Daily News, he explained his action:
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. And guess what? It has worked incredibly well. . . . Because we have cultivated their confidence, we have more responsibility to protect them. The very bears that trust us the most are the most vulnerable to hunting, which will be occurring literally a one-hour walk away from McNeil Falls.
Doug Hill, Aumillers replacement, has worked around bears before, but he is completely new to McNeil. Furthermore, many people who visited McNeil in 2006 already knew about the hunting debate. Many visitors wanted to know what they could do to protest the BOGs actions and ensure the protection of the bears.
"Its gotten to the point where I dont want to talk about it anymore. Ive tried to stay clear of the politics," Hill admits. "At the same time, its our job to protect the bears. It doesnt make sense that wed be neutral about hunting near McNeil."
One staff member, Thomas M. Griffin, says his approach is "to tell people, Its up to you to decide whats right or wrong." Away from visitors, Griffin is less hesitant to share his opinions. "Are we setting these animals up? Oh yeah. Its a no-brainer. Wheres the sport in hunting habituated bears? Wheres the fair-chase ethic?"
In recent years, the BOG and other hunting advocates have consistently argued that hunting and killing a few bears wont harm either the McNeil experience or threaten the sanctuarys gathering. Ronald J. Somerville, a member of the BOG and one of the chief proponents for increased bear hunting near McNeil sanctuary, advanced that argument at the 2005 meeting that approved the Kamishak hunt set for 2007. "There is no mutually exclusive conflict between viewing bears and hunting them," he said then.
In fact, however, Somerville also suggested making hunting legal in McNeil River State Game Refuge, a 188-square-mile block of land just north of the sanctuary, where bears were afforded additional protections beginning in 1993. All bear hunting has been prohibited in the refuge since 1995. But the board agreed at the spring 2005 meeting that Somervilles proposal to allow hunting in McNeil refuge would be on the BOG agenda for its meetings this month from the 2nd through the 12th. In spite of the agenda vote, the board did not file Somervilles proposal by the required deadline. But the board could still bring the McNeil refuge into the discussion of the scheduled hunt in the Kamishak Special Use Area, which is formally on the agenda. Somerville, appointed chairman of the BOG in 2006, did not respond to repeated requests by Natural History for comment.
Ted H. Spraker, another board member and a former state wildlife biologist, says that the compatibility of viewing with hunting was not uppermost in the minds of board members when they approved the Kamishak hunt: "People need to understand that we werent targeting McNeils bears when we reviewed the Kamishak areas bear-hunting closure. It was simply part of a long-overdue review of hunting closures statewide."
The reasons for approving the Kamishak hunt were largely political, Spraker adds, a tactical response to a long-standing dispute between the state and the National Park Service (NPS) over landsincluding the Kamishak Special Use Areathat the two parties agreed to trade years ago. Spraker and other board members argue that the NPS reneged on the deal once the Kamishak area was closed to hunting, a charge the NPS denies. By reopening Kamishak to bear hunting, Spraker says, board members hoped they would force the NPS back to the negotiating table.
"The board had good intentions, but it looks like [its tactic] may backfire on us," Spraker admits. "We puffed up our chests, played our cards. Now we may have to fall on our swords.
"We still could postpone any hunt [at the boards meeting this month]. I cant speak for the entire board, but Id push for a delay in the hunt, and give the park service more time to deal with us."
Benjamin F. Grussendorf, a former state legislator and one of two board members to oppose the new hunt, refuses to speculate on the motives of the five who approved it. But Grussendorf has no doubt that "it was an unnecessary thing to do, to rile people up and create a huge public outcry, simply to allow for two or three more bears to be harvested. It just isnt worth it."
But like Spraker, Grussendorf suspects the BOG will "take a second look" at the Kamishak hunt during its March meeting. "I think youll have some board members looking at things differently." Whether hes had a sudden change of heart or not is hard to say, but Spraker now essentially agrees with Aumiller: "To be honest, I would hate to see [the Kamishak area or McNeil refuge] opened; Id like to see a continuous area protected." To approve a hunt, he adds, "would cost both the board and hunters a lot of credibility. I dont think the opportunity to take a few more bears is worth the black eye it would give to either hunters or the state."
Spraker was the only board member who voted to open the Kamishak area to hunting who could be reached for comment.
In November 2006, voters elected a new Republican governor who is an avowed advocate of hunting. Sarah Palin, like her predecessor, was strongly endorsed by the AOC when she ran for governor, and is a member of the organization, which in recent years has largely gotten its way.
When asked about the bear-hunting controversy, Palins deputy press secretary, Charles Fedullo, responded this way via e-mail: "The governor said she is a hunter and that ... some of her best memories growing up are of hunting with her dad to help fill the family freezer. She wants Alaskans to have access to wildlife [to hunt]. However," he added, "she does not support bear hunting in the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary." Beyond that, including on the issue of increased hunting around the sanctuary, Palin was more evasive. "The governor wants to wait till she, along with the fisheries and game boards, names a Fish and Game Commissioner to delve further into the issue," said her spokesman.
Palin knows she must tread lightly. She is surely as aware as the members of the BOG that any attempt to open McNeil refuge even to a limited hunt (as it was in fall 1995 and spring 1996) is likely to meet with intense and widespread oppositioneven among many hunters and big-game guides. Those 1995 and 1996 hunts inspired hundreds of hunting opponents to swamp the real hunters by applying for the eight available permits; largely because of that protest effort, only one bear was killed.
But neither she nor the BOG can continue to dodge the looming question for long: Will the BOG again ignore overwhelming public sentiment and follow a path that, as Aumiller puts it, introduces new risks to the worlds most famous and successful brown-bear sanctuary? Or, as Spraker has suggested, will it adopt a more moderate course: admit that opening the lands adjoining McNeil to hunting is a big mistake and make it clear that in McNeil, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the bears do indeed come first?
Copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 2008