On one of this summer's rare bluesky days, pilot Butch Laughlin of Alaska Fly 'N' Fish Charters flew three passengers into Seymour Canal on Admiralty Island. As he circled Swan Cove, he spotted a brown bear sow and two cubs, as well as a lone bear, fishing on the tidal flats in a stream filled with salmon.
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The bears in Swan Cove are used to people like him and the tourists he takes to the area, according to Laughlin.
Laughlin is worried because this fall, the Alaska Board of Game will consider two proposals to open Swan Cove to brown bear hunting. The board will hear public testimony on Proposals 13 and 15 on bear hunting, as well as other measures, at 6 p.m. Thursday at Centennial Hall.
"A bear hunt at Swan Cove would be pretty easy," said Laughlin, a member of the conservation group Friends of Admiralty Island.
Bear hunting guide Mike Millar disagrees.
"I don't see any reason why Swan Cove shouldn't be opened or why it was ever closed," said Millar, who also considers himself a friend of Admiralty Island, though not a member of the organization.
He's hunted in the Seymour Canal area for more than 40 years. "I am a conservationist, not a preservationist."
Due to the tide, Laughlin landed south of Swan Cove at Pack Creek and walked with his passengers to the bear-viewing area. A permit is needed to visit Pack Creek from June 1 to Sept. 10 and a visit during that time is tightly administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
On, Sept. 15, the place was empty ... of people anyway.
To see a brown bear in the Juneau area, Pack Creek is the place to go. As the raven flies, Pack Creek lies a little more than 20 miles south of Juneau in the northwest corner of Seymour Canal on Admiralty Island.
To get there, tourists often hire a floatplane, while locals sometimes paddle their kayaks down Gastineau Channel, cross Stephens Passage, squeeze into Oliver Inlet, portage on the tram into Seymour Canal and paddle some more to Pack Creek - in all, a full day of human-powered travel.
Swan Cove lies about six miles north of Pack Creek. That's about the distance from Centennial Hall to the Juneau International Airport.
"Bears at Swan Cove are likely to have become habituated to people due to highly regulated viewing at Pack Creek," said Bruce Baker, vice president of Friends of Admiralty Island's board of directors. "Hunting these bears violates the principle of fair-chase hunting and is unsportsmanlike. It would set a bad example for young people considering hunting bears."
Sportsman Harry Keller, however, says the bears that people come to see at Pack Creek are different than those hunters target.
"The bears that become habituated to people are the sows and cubs, not the boars," said Keller, who's spent more than 20 years hunting in Seymour Canal. "When we hunt for brown bear, we hunt for trophy-size boars. The boars get big because they're canny; you're not going to see a big boar fishing around in Pack Creek."
Laughlin motioned to his clients to quiet down when they approached the viewing area. As two bears fished in Pack Creek, the photographer smiled widely and shot away. Within minutes, a third bear came to within 40 yards of the group - close enough to make the tourist look nervous.
"We do know for sure that bears that are seen at Pack Creek do visit both Windfall Harbor and Swan Cove," said Rod Flynn, a research wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "This is not unexpected given they are only a couple of miles apart. A bear could easily move that distance in an afternoon."
Proposals 13 & 15
These two proposals would open bear hunting in swan cove, which is near a popular wildlife watching site.
Pro: Hunters see little conflict arising between wildlife watchers and hunters because the hunting season would not be during the peak tourist season. trophy boars would be thinned out, taking pressure off cubs and sows.
Con: Because there are so many visitors to the area, preservationists claim the bears are habituated to people and hunting them violates the principle of fair-chase hunting and is unsportsmanlike.
The fish runs at Pack Creek attract up to 30 different bears, predominately sows with cubs, and sub-adult bears each summer, Flynn said.
Unlike Pack Creek, Swan Cove and Windfall Harbor do not require individual permits to visit. This allows guides such as Laughlin to take tourists bear viewing to Swan Cove when the limited number of Pack Creek permits are taken.
The Territorial Game Commission closed the Pack Creek drainage to bear hunting in 1934. The Board of Game added Swan Cove, Swan Island, Windfall Harbor, and Windfall Island as protected areas in 1984, and named the area the Seymour Canal Closed Area, which represents 6 percent of the land on Admiralty Island. With a few exceptions, the rest of Admiralty, an island with one of the highest densities of brown bear in the world, is open to bear hunting.
"We're opposed to Proposals 13 and 15 because (Swan Cove) is one of the few areas on Admiralty that bear viewers and photographers do not have to compete with bear hunters," Baker said.
Proposal 13, proposed by a member of the public, asks to open Swan Cove and Swan Island to both fall and spring brown bear hunting. Proposal 15, sponsored by the Board of Game itself, proposes a spring hunt only.
"Alaskans expect the board to look out for the interest of all wildlife users, not just trophy hunters, and when they propose a proposal themselves, folks are likely to see the board as an advocate for their own agenda rather than an unbiased and neutral judge of proposals and public comment that are submitted by the public at large," Baker said.
Hunters believe hunters and wildlife viewers can both use these areas without a problem.
"If you open Swan Cove and Swan Island to hunting there will not be much conflict," Keller said. "The spring season closes May 20, and the fall season opens later than anyone's down there."
The Board of Game will meet this November in Wrangell to decide the bear-hunting issue. The board is a governor-appointed panel of seven members, whose purpose is to establish regulations or administrative law dealing with wildlife use.
"The board established a process of going around the state and looking at closed and restricted areas, like Pack Creek, and determining if they still meet the initial goals as designated by the board and are still a legitimate use of the area," said Ron Somerville, vice chairman of the Board of Game.
When asked his opinion on opening Swan Cove, Somerville declined to comment because he wants to hear public testimony before he commits to an action.
Some proponents of the proposals to open the area to hunting say the measure could actually improve bear viewing in the area.
"Taking a few boars from Swan Cove or Swan Island might improve the numbers at Pack Creek because boars dearly love to kill cubs and sows," Keller said.
Back at Pack Creek, after an hour of taking pictures of the bears in the sun, Laughlin and his clients sat back and relaxed. Pack Creek flowed by, and the air smelled of autumn. The photographer lit a cigarette and packed the heavy camera and tripod on his shoulder.
The fall brown bear hunting season opened that day.