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Lucky photographers, bear-lovers win McNeil River permits

Mike Campbell

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has picked the 185 winners of coveted permits to visit the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to view feeding brown bears from June to late August.

One of the world’s premier bear viewing sites, remote McNeil River is on the Alaska Peninsula about 100 miles west of Homer. It has operated since 1967.  Some 719 applicants sought permits for this summer.

“The peak period is in July, and it’s been good the last couple of years,” said Ed Weiss of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  The most bears counted in a single day were the 76 tallied late last July.

“In the early 2000s, the bear numbers were going down,” Weiss said.  “But in the last two years, we’ve had some record numbers.”

Although all five species of Pacific salmon use McNeil River, the abundant chum salmon run in July and early August attracts the most bears. About a mile upstream from its mouth, a series of rocks and boulders forms McNeil River Falls. Salmon congregate there and the brown bears dine on them, with their efforts to snatch fish often yielding spectacular photographs.

The permit program is administered by Fish and Game, which tightly controls visitors to the sanctuary.  No more than 10 people at a time are allowed to view bears from a platform at McNeil River Falls and other locations between June 7 and Aug. 25.