I hope that my photos may have conveyed a some of the awe inspiring joy of seeing these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. I've travelled to North America to view bears for many years, but nothing can compare to the experience of McNeil River. Part of my fascination in brown bears is that they're symbolic of wilderness: of a time when humans had not yet exploited our planet as comprehensively at the expense of our fellow creatures. McNeil feels almost untouched by people because visitation is so stringently restricted. Furthermore, it's guided by experts who ensure that visitors are educated to behave in a manner which minimises any adverse effect on the bears. This isn't simply a moral issue about animal welfare: close management also allows the viewing experience to be profoundly moving. Bears chose to approach humans closely because visitors' profiles are kept as low as possible. Many years of consistent behaviour by people mean there is no reason for conflict, or for bears to be shot.
It's therefore with great concern that I write that the exemplar of standards of wildlife management in the world and inspiration for others working in conservation, is now under serious threat. Friends of McNeil has outlined the situation in detail in their May 2014 newsletter, which you can download here. The fundamental source of this danger is the influence of the business lobby and neoliberal ideology in the US political system. The Alaska State Government (McNeil is not under Federal jurisdiction, unlike Anan Creek) is desperate to avoid publicity about the review. There was no mention of any change to the status quo during my visit to McNeil, as State employees are strictly forbidden from mentioning the plans. It's unfortunate that an area such as wildlife management should become so politicised, with Randy Bates in charge of implementing the policy attempting to spin its impact to the public.
US States are run under an executive system, and so the short-sighted and misguided views of one individual, Governor Sean Parnell, can be a tremendous threat. An oil industry lobbyist for many years who has worked for Conoco Philips, one of the state's largest oil producers and still has deep rooted connections in oil. He shares his former boss Sarah Palin's distaste for regulation, declaring that 'Alaska is open for business'. His policy priorities, at a time when global warming is having a direct and very real impact on remote Alaskan communities, is to facilitate access for fossil fuel extraction and improve the State's balance sheet, at a time when it is in deficit due to the deep tax cuts he has given to giant multi national oil producers. This is of no consolation to those who want to study or protect the walruses on Round Island: the preserve there is due to close next year to help fund the tax handouts to the industry which helped fund his election campaign.
Parnell signed Administrative Order 266 which has a wide ranging brief to reduce Government regulation, which he believes hinders the freedom of extractive industry to exploit natural habitats. As a result of this, management plans for the 32 Special Areas in Alaska, which exist to protect wildlife, are being revised. This year, McNeil River is one of eight which is being re-drawn behind closed doors. Dude Creek Critical Habitat Area near Gustavus was the first such area to be subjected to this process, and the omens for McNeil are not encouraging: the capacity to protect and manage the nesting area of sandhill cranes was completely removed. The secrecy of Parnell's apparently undemocratic process means that details of planned changes are a matter for speculation, but it's thought that in an effort to increase revenue from the site, visitor numbers will be increased; four-wheeler trails established; and alternative landing sites found for planes to allow a greater throughput of people. Any such measures would undoubtedly profoundly change the character of McNeil.
To those who judge value in financial terms, McNeil River is an anomaly. Other bear viewing areas such as Brooks Falls, which has tourist infrastructure including a lodge and operates a queuing system to give visitors an hour at a time watching bears on a crowded platform, generate more income. Yet it is the very uniqueness of McNeil that makes it worth fighting for: this is a resource of world importance. Brown Bears have almost disappeared from the Lower 48 because they need areas of untouched wilderness. Furthermore, as a resource for education and for increasing understanding of the best practice in management of wildlife, McNeil is unrivalled. There may be a short period allowed for public comments on the re-written management plan: keep an eye on Friends of McNeil's Facebook page for news of this. It's suspected this consultation period may be over Christmas to reduce the opportunity for protest. Furthermore, if you feel strongly about this issue, I'd urge you to contact Alaska Fish and Game's Habitat Division and the Governor to express concern.
Navigation, Alaska, July 2014