ANCHORAGE - For decades, Larry Aumiller led small groups of people into the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to watch as the largest congregation of brown bears in the world feast on salmon in the summer.
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The former sanctuary manager said he emotionally couldn't do it any longer after a decision by the Alaska Board of Game increased opportunities to hunt the bears. Aumiller moved to Montana.
"To be honest, it was so heartbreaking I just couldn't be around it," Aumiller said.
If nothing changes, state lands used by the bears near the 114,400-acre sanctuary in southwest Alaska will be open to hunting as of July 1, clearing the way for a fall hunt.
Opponents say it's not sporting to hunt the McNeil River bears, which are accustomed to humans and routinely come to within 10 or 15 feet of small groups of bear viewers allowed into the sanctuary each summer. Supporters say the bears are fair game when they wander outside the sanctuary.
The game board, which is appointed by the governor to regulate hunting in Alaska, voted to open the state lands to brown bear hunting at the request of hunters.
McNeil, created by the state 40 years ago, is arguably the best place in the world to view brown bears. That's because two things make McNeil exceptional; how close the bears will safely come to humans and how many there are at the sanctuary.
As many as 144 individual bears have been observed at McNeil River with as many as 72 bears observed at one time at the falls, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a state agency separate from the game board.
However, numbers have declined significantly since 1998, with 78 individual bears spotted at McNeil River in 2004 and 87 in 2005 - well below the average of 104 going back to 1983.
The Department of Fish and Game says numbers now are dipping below the threshold where quality bear viewing may be affected.
Critics say if hunting increases it is just a matter of time before one of the recognizable bears - the ones that have been named by staff members over the years - is killed.
There's Teddy. She is so tolerant of humans she will nurse her cubs just 10 feet from the sanctuary's viewing platform next to the falls.
"A bear like Teddy is invaluable," Aumiller said. "She is so good, so tolerant. In a way, she's worth 10 other bears."
The seven-member game board is being asked to consider 10 proposals to either reverse its decision or reduce hunting pressure on the bears when they wander outside the sanctuary 250 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The board is expected to take up the proposals in March.