Has one of the world's premier brown bear viewing sites lost its luster?
So it seems.
As the March 1 deadline to apply for a permit to visit the remote McNeil River State Game Refuge approaches, officials wonder whether the falling number of applicants will continue — or even accelerate.
In 1993, state officials received 2,150 applications, the high water mark. By last year, that number was down to 819, a decline of 62 percent.
"I don't think we know why for sure, most likely a combination of things," said McNeil Refuge manager Ed Weiss. "There was a general decline in mid-2000s and a couple things occurred during that time — a decline in the economy, tourism and the growth in commercially available bear-viewing opportunities."
In recent years, a growing number of private companies, including air taxis, have offered tours throughout Cook Inlet along the Alaska Peninsula in Katmai National Park and in Kodiak, promising opportunities to view brown bears in their natural habitat. Visitors pressed for time may find those tours particularly appealing because they can be back in their hotel rooms the same night.
"Since the economy and tourism generally got better since (the Lower 48 recession), we suspect the growth in other opportunities has something to do with numbers (at McNeil) not coming back up in recent years."
After hitting its peak in 1993, applicant numbers settled into a range of 1,300 to 1,500 through 2004 before a sudden downturn, Weiss said. "We don't have any real good data on why that was."
On the Alaska Peninsula, McNeil can be reached by air taxi from Homer. It's open for bear viewing June 7-Aug. 25, when bear number peak as spawning chum salmon, a favored food, move upstream.
A nonrefundable application fee of $25 per person gets applicants into the drawing. Winners then pay a permit fee of $150 for Alaskans, $350 for nonresidents. A total of 185 permits are issued during the summer, each valid for a specific four-day stretch. Visitors stay in the sanctuary campground.
Campers make a 4-mile round-trip hike to the world-famous falls that involves slogging across mud flats. A typical day at the falls involves six to eight hours on a 10-by-10-foot gravel viewing pad, watching and photographing bears.
Applications are due by March 1 and available online at www.mcneilriver.adfg.gov.
Just as the application period is closing, a new book on McNeil, "In Wild Trust: Larry Aumiller's Thirty Years Among McNeil River Brown Bears," is coming off the University of Alaska Press. Author Jeff Fair tells the story of Aumiller, the guide and manager who, without formal training in wildlife management, became a leading expert on brown bears.