McNeil River State Game Sanctuary Manager Tom Griffin usually spends about a month and a half in April and May talking in schools about bear and wildlife safety, but tonight he'll be part of a different talk - a celebration of the Sanctuary's 50th Anniversary at, appropriately enough, a local eatery called the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.
Griffin says tourism has evolved in Alaska over the life of the sanctuary, starting with the creation of it in 1967. "Bear viewing in Alaska used to be an outlier if you asked visitors to Alaska what they wanted to do, but now it's one of the top things on the list, right up there with Denali."
The west side of Cook Inlet has become a hot spot for seeing the powerful animals in their natural habitat. Not only is the location relatively close to Anchorage, but also all five species of Pacific salmon come to the sanctuary. According the the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website for the Sanctuary, the dog salmon are what draws the most bears to the river.
The need to protect the bears and preserve the habitat has meant the State had to come up with a lottery system to handle the popularity of the sanctuary with human visitors. Depending on which part of the summer visitors draw in the lottery, they may see different bear activities, such as clamming, fishing and foraging on vegetation.
More information about the Sanctuary and instructions on how to obtain a permit to visit the can be found at the State's website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mcneilriver.main