Homer bear viewing operations fear population declines if Pebble Mine moves forward

Apr 10, 2018

McNeil Falls during peak bear viewing season.
Credit Courtesy of Drew Hamilton

As the scoping process for the Pebble Mine moves forward, Cook Inletkeeper is hosting several workshops in Homer in an effort to broaden public comments given to the Army Corps of Engineers. Inletkeeper held a session Monday about how Pebble’s infrastructure may affect bears on the western side of Cook Inlet. Bear viewing operations, biologists and others from the tourism industry fear the project would lead to population declines in the area.

The Pebble Limited Partnership wants to build a deep-water port near Amakdedori Beach on the southwestern side of Cook Inlet and a road running from the port to Illiamna Lake near the village of Kokhanok. The road would come within a mile of the McNeil River State Game Refuge and Sanctuary boundary, and the port facility Pebble is proposing is within sight of a popular bear viewing location within the refuge.   

Drew Hamilton runs a commercial bear viewing operation out of Homer, and he’s president of the Friends of McNeil River, a nonprofit that works to preserve the refuge and sanctuary. He said it’s almost undisturbed by humans.

“They only allow 10 people a day to go into the sanctuary,” Hamilton said. “It's this highly structured human behavior that makes it so successful, and so they're not displacing bears. They've got a very small human footprint, and as a consequence, it's one of the last places in Alaska where bears can just be bears.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says McNeil has the largest concentration of wild brown bears in the world. Surveys suggest the area is home to about 2,000 to 2,500 brown bears. But the bears don’t just stay in McNeil. Hamilton said it’s just another pit stop. 

“A McNeil bear is also a Katmai preserve bear is also a Cape Douglas bear,” he said. “There have been bears tagged in Hallo Bay down on the Katmai coast that have made their way to McNeil Falls. There have been bears from McNeil that have been sighted at McNeil Falls have also been sighted on Amakdedori Beach.”

There’s a reason bears move around so much. Dave Bachrach runs AK Adventures, a Homer-based bear viewing business that flies into Katmai National Park and Preserve.

“Bears are about eating,” he said. “It's all about food.”

He said when food runs out in one area, bears move to another. He’s worried the proposed road will reduce the range bears are traveling for food.

“I mean that's the problem they have in Wyoming and Montana and British Columbia and Alberta as well,” Bachrach said. “You know the bears and other wildlife have problems crossing them.”

Bachrach believes it’s unlikely bears will starve to death, but he said they may not be able to build up fat reserves for the winter.

Female bears only have cubs if they have enough fat reserves to sustain them and the cubs,” he said. “She could mate, but if it’s a bad salmon year or bad berry year and if she does not have enough fat, then the cubs basically self-abort.”

But there are many other ways that Bachrach and others see the road leading to population declines. They say bears will come into contact with humans more often, potentially leading to more lethal interactions. Other say the road may have also negatively impact the salmon they eat. But it’s not just bear viewing companies that say they have something at stake here.

It’s Michael LeMay’s seventeenth year in the bed and breakfast business in Homer. He’s the owner and operator of the Good Karma Inn, and he said the business has changed a lot.

“When I started, about 65 percent of my guests came here to fish,” LeMay said. “It's evolved now so 17 years later I would say that no more than 30 percent of my guests come here specifically to fish and that 65 percent of my guests come here to see the bears.”

He's worried that if bear populations decline across Cook Inlet, that could mean fewer guests for his business.

“Virtually all of my guests from Europe come here specifically to see the bears,” he said. “I don't see any way that the Pebble Mine will not affect our incredibly large bear viewing revenues, and it's going to affect not just the bed breakfasts, it's going to affect the restaurants, it's going to affect the entire economy.”

Inletkeeper is breaking its workshops into three topics. It hosted a broader session on implications for wildlife Friday and it’s holding its final session Tuesday on commercial fishing before the Army Corps of Engineers holds a scoping session in Homer on Wednesday.