Homer supports move to expand bear sanctuary

Area residents ask lawmaker to protect declining population

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The Land's End Resort in Homer is just a short flight from some of the best bear-viewing in the world. Homer would like to keep it that way.

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The town on Kachemak Bay, known for its thriving arts community and bustling halibut charter business, is getting some help from Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who introduced a bill into the Legislature that would derail a plan by the Alaska Board of Game to open up state lands next to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to hunting. The sanctuary is home to the largest congregation of brown bears in the world.

The state lands, just south and southeast of the sanctuary, have been closed to brown bear hunting for more than 20 years. Seaton's bill would change the sanctuary's boundaries to include the 95,000 acres of state land used by the famed McNeil River bears.

Seaton said the bill is in response to constituents in his district asking him to prevent the game board from allowing the McNeil River bears to be hunted, especially when numbers gathering at the McNeil Falls to fish for salmon have declined in recent years.

The game board's 2005 decision takes effect July 1, clearing the way for an October hunt. The board is expected to reconsider the issue at a meeting in March in Anchorage.

Seaton said his bill is a move to protect bear viewing.

"Out of Homer, my area, there are a lot of people that have developed an economic base in providing bear viewing opportunities for people all across the nation," Seaton said. "It doesn't make much sense to be hunting those ... when they are on the decline."

Seaton points to a 2005 study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage that says Homer visitors who viewed bears spent $2,828 per person per trip to Alaska. That compares with about $1,400 spent by the average summer visitor.

Seaton has not heard much opposition to his bill, yet. He expects to hear more as the bill moves through the Legislature, and thinks he knows where the opposition will come from.

"There are some people that just don't want to restrict any hunting anywhere in the state," Seaton said.

However, Seaton said his bill would place no restrictions on current uses.

"It is an area that has not been used for hunting bears for years and years. Nothing in the bill would restrict sport fishing or commercial fishing or the current uses over there," Seaton said.

Game Board Chairman Ron Somerville said he has no problem with the Legislature considering changing the boundaries of the sanctuary, which was created 40 years ago.

"That is certainly the prerogative of the Legislature. They are the ones that set it aside. They can modify it as they see fit," he said.

When Land's End operator Jon Faulkner arrived in Homer in 1988, bear-viewing was in its infancy, he said, with just one high-end wilderness lodge in the area offering tours.

No longer. The 104-room hotel 112 air miles from the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary books a quarter-million dollars in bear-viewing trips a year.

"It is huge," Faulkner said, of the bear-viewing business. "Today, when we talk to clients about coming to Kachemak Bay to recreate bear viewing is as much a viable option as parasailing in Mexico."

Faulkner, a hunter who supports hunters' rights, said when it comes to the McNeil River bears, he supports Seaton's bill.

"Just like there are certain places you don't drill for oil there are certain places you don't hunt bears," he said.

The city of Homer also supports the bill. Bear viewing has become an important part of the local economy, said city manager Walt Wrede. It's not just the money spent on bear-viewing tours, Wrede said. It's also the money spent to stay in hotels and bed and breakfasts and eat in the town's restaurants.

"There is a ripple effect from bear viewing," he said.

Homer, with a year-round population of about 5,400, gets about 150,000 visitors a year, said Linda Broadhead, manager of the town's visitor center.

In February 2005, the Homer City Council passed a resolution asking the game board to keep the state lands next to the sanctuary closed. The resolution said bear viewing contributed "greatly to Homer's economy." It also said that more than 4,200 visitors between January and September of 2004 asked about trips to view bears when stopping in at the Homer Visitor Information Center.

The game board decided the next month to open the state lands next to the sanctuary to brown bear hunting. The request was made by hunters in Naknek, a fishing community of about 570 people about 100 miles away.

Seaton said the board took the action despite opposition from hundreds of Alaskans. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also spoke out against opening the state lands to brown bear hunting.

"It is known worldwide and around the country," Seaton said of the McNeil River bear-viewing experience.

Somerville has said the sanctuary was created to protect the bears at the McNeil Falls, not wherever they wander.

Chris Day and her husband Ken run Emerald Air Services out of Homer. Day said last season they took over 1,000 people to the Katmai National Preserve near the sanctuary to view bears. They have a single-engine Otter that can carry 10 passengers. They could easily triple the size of the business, she said.

"The bear-viewing client of 2007 understands what they want," Day said. "They want to observe and sit all day long and view bears."

In 2005, Day said 47 businesses in Homer signed a petition to try and keep the state lands closed. Those businesses ranged from air taxi companies to wilderness lodges to a bookstore.

Their pleas have fallen on "deaf ears" at the game board, she said.

"Our game is supposed to be managed for all Alaskans. The Board of Game simply is not doing that. They not only ... are not sympathetic they are actually adversarial toward any viewing of wildlife."

Dave Bachrach's company, AK Adventures, conducted 80 guided trips last summer to Katmai National Park south of the sanctuary to view bears. It takes about an hour by plane to get to the park, where Bachrach lands on the beach and small groups of clients hike in to get a look at the bears. While no hunting is allowed in Katmai National Park, the McNeil River bears use the park.

If those bears are hunted in what was once protected space, the bear-viewing experience will suffer, he said.

"Basically, we are not going to have a quality experience because all we are going to see is the behind of a bear when it sees either approaching aircraft or people," Bachrach said.

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