For the past 20 years, brown bears that frequent Admiralty National Monument's Pack Creek have become accustomed to people, toting cameras and binoculars, who are lured there by the rare chance to see the creatures in the wild.
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Now, however, the Alaska State Department of Fish and Game is charged with determining just how tame these bears are as officials contemplate opening nearby areas to bear hunting.
The prospect has been steeped in emotional controversy since it was proposed to the Board of Game two years ago. It has come up again as the same governor-appointed body reviews areas closed to hunting throughout the entire state. As part of that review process, two prime brown bear areas near Pack Creek are being reconsidered for hunting - Swan Cove and Swan Island.
Opponents of closures in these areas say it is an unnecessary regulation that reflects the state's propensity for over-regulation.
"These animals are a common property resource under our constitution. They cannot be reserved. They belong to you and me equally," said Mike Millar, a 42-year resident of Juneau who believes that, at times, the state takes an extreme stance on managing public lands. He also works for Juneau-registered hunting outfitter Mike Dobson.
"National forests are managed under the mixed-use concepts. I have a problem with these types of closures for nonconsumptive uses like bear viewing," Millar said.
Some worry that bears accustomed to people at Pack Creek might be either scared off or killed by hunters. They argue this could severely affect the chances for wildlife viewing - and tourism. Bear viewing is a good business for the handful of Juneau tour operators permitted to guide the nearly 1,200 visitors to the protected area annually.
"The bears needed a sanctuary (in 1984 when the closure was instituted), a place they wouldn't be disturbed. And I pretty much go along with that today. I think we should leave them alone there," said Mike Sofoulis, owner of the Juneau-based hunting outfit, Alaska Coastal Guiding.
Currently, about 94 percent of Admiralty is open to bear hunting.
Fish and Game wildlife biologists such as Phil Mooney are hurriedly compiling years of data that will give them a better clue about bear behavior in the areas around Pack Creek. This is difficult because some of the data predates computers, he said, which means it must be transferred into a form that will give a more comprehensive picture of the issue.
"It gets to be professional opinion versus what kind of data you've got," he said. "That'll be one of the things that will be discussed among the public."
Mooney and others are prepping for the Nov. 10 to 15 meeting in Wrangell where the board is expected to vote on the matter after hearing their report.
"There are many nuances," said the Fish and Game Departments regional management coordinator, Dale Rabe of the data. And much of it is open to a host of interpretations.
One concern is that bears from Pack Creek are some of the same bears that would be killed later by hunters at Swan Cove and on Swan Island.
"There have been various studies over the years that have shown that Pack Creek bears use both these drainages as part of their home range and travel back and forth between the two on a regular basis," said Harry Tullis, the U.S. Forest Service project manager for Pack Creek.
But just because they might be the same bears doesn't mean they always behave the same way, Rabe said. Studies have shown that bear behavior changes at various times of day - and during different seasons.
Even though the bears may be accustomed to people while fishing for salmon at Pack Creek, they may still react like wild bears when encountering hunters, proponents of opening the area say.
Millar's own long-time experience at Admiralty leads him to believe that the bears are still truly wild, no matter how much time they spend at Pack Creek.
"(Habituation) is something that people dream up in their own minds," Millar says. "A habituated bear is a garbage bear. These animals (on Admiralty Island) are wild animals. They are not in a zoo and they tolerate human beings."
Part of the issue is not that the overall bear population would decrease, but that the population of habituated bears - some of whom have been given names - might taper off as these bears are killed by hunters.
This would mean that "during the summer that a (habituated) bear would no longer be available to be viewed because it would be hanging on someone's wall," Tullis said.
Ultimately, for the tourist, this could lead to a lower "quality" experience, Rabe said.
"That is really the subject of the whole controversy."
Experts the Empire spoke with agreed that the majority of bears at Pack Creek are sows and cubs - and not the target for hunters seeking the trophy-size males. Not all agree, however, on whether the ratio of sows and cubs to males is steady.
Some, such as Tullis, believe the number of males is increasing, which means more potential trophy bears are being exposed to people and could become accustomed to their presence.
Since 2002, an average of 1,119 paying tourists visited Pack Creek per year - with about 10 percent more than that number in guides, according to U.S. Forest Service data.
The U.S. Forest Service collects $50 per adult and $25 per child and senior that enters the area during peak season. Off-season, the rates are slashed to $20 and $10, respectively. Tour operators charge about $550 per person for a one-day trip.
The Juneau public is invited to a Thursday meeting at Centennial Hall to give comments. Public testimony has already been heard once at an Oct. 5 Board of Game advisory committee meeting in Juneau. Comments were overwhelmingly in opposition to re-opening the areas, said board Chairman Ron Somerville.
On Nov. 10, the Board of Game will review public testimony and scientific data to render a final decision.
Somerville said people need to be reminded that opening Swan Cove and Swan Island to bear hunting "is not a done deal."
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com.
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