The Alaska Peninsula is home to around 10,000 wild brown bears, which thrive on the region’s pristine salmon-bearing rivers, vast untouched tundra, and intertidal grassland habitat. In carefully managed areas such as McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge and Katmai National Park, tens of thousands of people travel every summer to watch bears fishing for salmon, and millions more admire them via Internet webcams. The bears’ future, however, is threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine.
Pebble Mine is a copper and gold mine proposed for the area north of Lake Iliamna. It proposes to hold its toxic mine tailings in earthen dams at the headwaters of rivers that flow into Bristol Bay – where half of the world’s wild salmon are harvested, supporting a $1.5 billion fishing industry. If the tailings were to leach into the water table, it could destroy the habitat not only of the world’s densest populations of brown bears, but the ancestral homelands of numerous Alaskan tribal groups and the livelihoods of 14,000 people who make a living from fishing.
Pebble Mine’s infrastructure would also result in irreversible habitat loss for bears. A transport route to export ore would border the McNeil River State Game Refuge and cut through a migration corridor for the bears, which wander up to 80 miles to search for food. The same bears that rely on protected areas would likely come into conflicts with humans, altering the harmonious relationships between bears and people that form the basis of the bear viewing industry.
Of the estimated 50,000 brown bears that once thrived across the continental US, 98% of them have perished due to hunting and habitat loss. Alaska is the last place in the country where their habitat remains untouched. While supporters of Pebble Mine wish to bolster the local economy, opponents of the mine feel that the consequences of an environmental disaster – to the salmon, the people of the region, and the bears – are simply too great to risk.