Alaskan Bears: To Be Seen, Or Shot?

Brown bears have become symbols of a bitter culture war in the last frontier state of Alaska. The iconic animals, reports CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen, are caught between those who believe the bears should be hunted and killed, and those who believe some are better left alone.

The battleground is the renowned McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, site of the world's largest concentration of brown bears. Hunting was banned at the sanctuary a half-century ago to allow the animals to get their annual fill of salmon in safety.

Visitors are limited by lottery, and the place remains a safe haven. But life for the bears is changing on the sanctuary's edges, as buffer zones just a few miles away are set to be opened to trophy hunters.

The state says the decision is part of a game management plan. However, it means the big bears fishing and frolicking on the river today may be bear rugs a year from now.

The issue isn't one of endangered species; there's an abundance of brown bears in Alaska for viewers and hunters. But are the McNeil River bears too used to humans to be wary of hunters?

"The way we describe it is like shooting a neighbor's dog, it's heartbreaking," says Ken Day, who runs bear viewing tours in areas near the sanctuary along with his wife, Chris. "These bears come up to you and lay down and nurse their cubs and take naps. They feel protected by you from other bears."

Wildlife viewing — a half-billion-dollar a year tourist industry in Alaska, and growing — mirrors a changing state. By comparison, sport hunting generates $200 million, and hunter numbers are declining.

The powerful hunting lobby argues there are jobs and a heritage to protect. The Alaska Outdoor Council's Rod Arno asks, "Why is it important enough to go ahead and do away with that heritage in order to allow a larger number of people coming that are tourists, environmentalists who are just viewing?"

Ruth Roberts traveled from Minneapolis to see the bears of McNeil River. "We're [Green Bay] Packers fans and we don't like 'Da Bears," she jokes. "But we like these bears."

And it's hard not to. The day after CBS News encountered a frolicking mother bear and her three cubs, she was spotted caring for just two. The third was killed by another bear — nature's way of culling the weak.

Unless state officials reverse their decision, the strongest of the McNeil clan will also become more vulnerable. Nature will gain a partner: trophy hunters loaded for bear.