State agency says hunt of sanctuary bears is ill-advised

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Hunting the famous McNeil River bears on land next to their sanctuary is ill-advised given strong opposition from the public, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said in recommending the area remain closed to brown bear hunting.

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The McNeil River State Game Sanctuary - home to the largest congregation of brown bears in the world - has been in the spotlight lately because of a move by the Alaska Board of Game to open 95,000 acres next to the sanctuary to brown bear hunting.

The regulation takes effect July 1, opening the way for an October hunt. The game board, which sets hunting regulations in Alaska, will reconsider its decision in March.

In a review of proposals to the board, the Department of Fish and Game recommended Tuesday that it adopt one from the Alaska Professional Hunters Association Inc. in support of keeping the lands closed.

In its proposal, the 750-member association representing about 150 professional guides and outfitters in Alaska, said allowing the bears to be hunted could create a backlash against hunting, causing a loss of hunting opportunities elsewhere.

"The credibility of Alaska's bear management and allocation system should not be jeopardized for the sake of the limited amount of hunting opportunity this regulation would afford," the group said in its proposal.

Fish and Game, citing strong opposition from the public, agrees that the stakes are too high when it comes to hunting the McNeil River bears.

"While a limited harvest would not jeopardize the bear population in the area, the planned hunt is not in accord with the interests of the general public," Fish and Game said. "This hunt has drawn the attention of many people because it is surrounded by two of the world's most famous brown bear sanctuaries and because it has been closed for over 20 years."

Joe Meehan, Fish and Game's program coordinator for lands and refuge programs, said the agency made the same recommendation to the board two years ago when it voted to open the lands. Since then, Meehan has received at least 100 e-mails, phone calls and letters from people who want the state lands to remain closed.

"The comments have varied from people who don't think there should be any hunting of any animals ... to those who say they themselves are hunters but they don't think hunting in this area is appropriate," Meehan said.

Kristi Tibbles, executive director of the game board, said the issue has gotten considerable attention. Last week, the board received a CD from Defenders of Wildlife with more than 28,000 comments from people concerned about the future of the McNeil River bears.

Tom Banks, Alaska associate with Defenders of Wildlife, said it gathered the comments after sending out an e-mail alert to its members with an online petition to keep the areas closed.

Tibbles said the board has requested that Defenders of Wildlife summarize the comments.

As of Wednesday, the National Parks Conservation Association had collected 10,888 comments from people wanting to keep the area closed to brown bear hunting, said Jim Stratton, Alaska regional director.

"They are all saying keep it closed, every one of them," he said.

John Toppenberg, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said his group submitted 500 letters to the board last Friday. The letters were from people all over the world, he said.

"There are a lot of people out there that care about these bears," he said.

Game board chairman Ron Somerville said those views will be considered at the March meeting.

"I think this board bends over backward to generate opportunity for the public to weigh in on issues," he said.

The board is scheduled to meet in Anchorage March 2-12.



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