This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
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Opening what amounts to a sliver of land and a postage-stamp sized parcel to limited brown bear hunting near the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary will not endanger that brown bear population or give Alaska a black eye.
There are people, however, who would sock this state and its hunters smack in the eye. But it would be for their own purposes, not because the state should be ashamed.
The McNeil bears are not in danger and hunters' dollars and the state of Alaska - not tourism businesses, animal rights groups or the National Park Service - are the ones who have been responsible for the health, management and growth of that bear population for decades.
But now more and more people see these individual bears with some sort of celebrity status; like pets or a zoo animal like Shamu. That is wrong; a very dangerous and very wrong way to characterize Alaska's wildlife - especially brown bears.
If some sort of Timothy Treadwell-like philosophy equating human contact with bear protection is what is now guiding the operation of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, then maybe the Legislature should be looking into limiting its size and not expanding it as has been proposed by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer - who would close more of the area to hunting. That is not a philosophy we want to see grow or to see our state embrace.
How many other places around the state will become popular viewing areas at the expense of other activities? How broadly will we start drawing circles on the map in case one of these celebrity animals should happen to wander into a hunting or trapping area?
While viewing McNeil's bears, visitors are told these are wild and unpredictable animals and tourists and photographers are accompanied by armed guides. But while debating the hunting of the bears, the same people say these bears are accustomed to people and hunting them is unethical because they are so used to bring with people its like shooting fish in a barrel.
The bears will tolerate a crowd of other bears and people to reach an important food source during a limited season, but that is a long time - and a far distance - from what happens when they are alone and in areas where hunting is allowed.
Besides, the hunt is not about whether a bear will run when it spots the hunter. Hunters strive to kill as humanely as possible and, most preferably, before the bear knows a hunter is present. Otherwise a lot more hunters would end up like Treadwell.
If bears have been that accustomed to people since the sanctuary was established back in 1967, the population would have been killed out long ago. The population of bears did just fine and the popularity of the area and the McNeil experience burgeoned while hunting was allowed for years in these same areas under debate today.
This black eye rhetoric is based on something that has very little practical effect on the ground, but does very clearly favor one user group over another.
We understand that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn't want to open the areas near McNeil because of the royal pain this would create for managers. We also understand that the Alaska Professional Hunters Association would rather go on with business without taking a black eye.
Sometimes it's wiser to choose your battles, and it wouldn't be unreasonable for the Alaska Board of Game to close this hunt because neither the managers or hunters seem all that interested.
But if the board decides to leave it open based purely on the principle that Alaska is not one big national park and because this is a state where we know hunting can be a part of a wildlife management regime that maximizes populations (as it did in the McNeil River area for two decades) then bully for them and bring on that black eye.
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