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Relaxing With Alaska’s Big Brown Bears

Bears And People Get Up Close At Sanctuary, But Will The Animals Know To Fear Hunters?
MCNEIL RIVER, Alaska, Aug. 14, 2006

(CBS) The spectacle plays out each summer at the world’s premier bear-viewing area: Alaska’s massive brown bears posing, wrestling and filling up on migrating salmon in the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary.

CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen reports there’s not a more camera-friendly group of brown bears in the world, because over time they’ve become very accustomed to having human visitors watch what they do.

And it’s a tough ticket. A lottery system grants admission to just 10 visitors a day, totaling just 200 for the entire summer.

“It’s overwhelming,” says Steve Roberts, who came from Minneapolis to see the bears. “You just don’t know which way to look. It’s a three-ring circus.”

Some people wait years for their chance to visit the sanctuary. Cheryl Parker, of Fairbanks, Alaska, found herself taken with a skinny girl bear who was trying to catch salmon: “There’s a girl out here who’s a tiny thing, and it takes her a while to get that fish. But once she gets it, she tears off with it.”

The sanctuary is located a float plane ride over Cooke Inlet on the Katmai Peninsula, just past the still-steaming Augustine volcano. Once there, it’s a four-mile hike to experience the ultimate bear tale.

Close encounters are common, and, as Bowen discovered, unnerving.

A young bear looked to Bowen for a little help with other, bigger, bears who wanted his fish. Guides shooed him off, but retired sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller said it’s another sign these are not your average bears.

“They’re so confident and so unconcerned about what we’re going to do, they’re relaxed enough to play,” Aumiller says. “It’s great.”

Therein lies the problem. McNeil’s bears may be too relaxed for what’s about to happen, when, one year from now, adjacent buffer zones that protect them will be opened to trophy hunters. It’s led Aumiller to retire, because he fears he’s set the bears up for disaster.

He says, “When you finally get there, and they finally trust you, and you know that trust is going to be violated, I don’t know how to describe it except to say it’s heartbreaking.”

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