Close Call For Alaska's Famous Bears

The McNeil River falls on the Alaska Peninsula, where each summer scores of massive brown bears gather to feast on migrating salmon.

It is the greatest concentration of these huge creatures anywhere in the world — sometimes 30 bears gather at a time — and the world's best viewing spot for the hundreds of visitors, drawn by lottery, who come each year to witness the spectacle. CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen reports.

"Words can't even describe what we're seeing here today, it's just unbelievable," says one visitor.

The McNeil River runs through a state game sanctuary, which means the bears are safe here. They can't be hunted by humans, only viewed. It's been that way for more than 30 years.

And it's a mutually beneficial encounter. The bears get their fish. The visitors get an eyeful, and both survive to tell the story.

And that is why tens of thousands of bear lovers around the world were shocked that State of Alaska game managers planned to make it easer for trophy hunters to kill some of these very same bears.

Protective no-hunting buffer zones on the edge of the sanctuary were to be opened to big game guides and their clients starting this July. Critics said the far ranging people-tolerant bears from McNeil would be easy pickings.

"These bears come up to you and lay down and nurse their cubs and take naps," says Ken Day, a float plane tour operator. "They feel protected by you ... the way we describe it is like shooting your neighbors' dogs. It's heartbreaking."

This past week Alaska's board of game got an ear- and eyeful: 10,000 letters and petitions from bear lovers. And this question: with 35,000 brown bears roaming all over Alaska, why jeopardize the 100 or so that call McNeil River home?

"McNeil River bears are the pride of the entire state," says Dorothy Keeler of Alaska Wildlife Alliance. "It's the crown jewel of the wildlife viewing experience in the state."

In the end, the board turned bearish and reversed its decision.

Come this summer, those hungry giants will feast in safety at McNeil, and beyond the sanctuary borders.

And awe-struck visitors will still come loaded for bears — with cameras. Knowing the creatures they see will most likely be back at McNeil for generations to come.