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Alaska Senate candidate under investigation for controversial hunt

Amanda Coyne
Alaska Dispatch illustration

Alaska state Senate candidate Bob Bell is under investigation for his role in a controversial musk ox hunt in 2010 during the same time he was serving on the Alaska Board of Game, according to Alaska State Troopers.

At issue is whether Bell followed regulations meant to discourage trophy hunting when he transferred ownership of horns from the musk ox he shot to a Nome artist, who then carved them and may have sold the horns back to Bell.

The candidate said in interviews that hunting partner Cliff Judkins, who was chairman of the Board of Game at the time of the hunt, kept horns from a musk ox he shot during the same hunt.

Former head of Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation Corey Rossi, who also participated in the hunt, might have been involved in the choice to keep the horns. Rossi this year resigned from the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation after it was discovered he organized an illegal bear hunt.

After questions from Alaska Dispatch, Alaska State Troopers are investigating what transpired with the musk ox horns that Bell and his fellow hunters took in 2010, according to Trooper investigator Justin Lindell and Nome-based Trooper Jay Sears. If Bell or others are found to have taken horns illegally, they could face misdemeanor charges, with up to a $10,000 fine and a year in jail, said Nome District Attorney John Earthman.

A Republican, Bell is running against incumbent state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, in the Nov. 6 election.

After a discussion about the horns last week, Bell, 69, declined to speak to Alaska Dispatch, instead directing all questions to campaign adviser Marc Hellenthal. Also, Bell initially agreed to allow Alaska Dispatch come to his house and photograph the horns, but changed his mind a short time later, claiming the news site was trying to “set me up.”

In an email to Hellenthal, who passed it along to Alaska Dispatch, Bell insists he did everything by the book.

“I did not break any laws, did not intend to skirt any laws. This was a perfectly legal hunt and perfectly legal purchase of art,” Bell said, referring to the musk ox horns. “(S)ome in the media are trying to make it into something it is not.”

Judkins did not return phone calls and Rossi could not be reached for comment.

(T)horny issue

Musk ox are prehistoric-looking, Arctic animals weighing up to 800 pounds, with shaggy hair and impressive horns. The Seward Peninsula population, an area that includes Nome, has grown from the 36 animals introduced there in 1970 to more than 2,500, nearly half of the state population that’s closely monitored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Whether hunters can keep the animal’s horns was already a thorny issue before Bell, Judkins and Rossi headed out on the tundra in 2010.

The Board of Game had repeatedly grappled with the question over the 13 collective years that Bell and Judkins served on the body. Rossi had also long participated in the discussion.

As was first reported by Alaska Dispatch earlier this year, the trio's hunt became controversial earlier this year when the men were accused of trying to pressure Nome-based state wildlife biologist Tony Gorn into allowing them to illegally keep musk ox horns as they applied for their hunting permits.

Rossi was behind the effort to strong-arm Gorn. Although not involved directly, Bell and Judkins were with Rossi when the initial confrontation took place. Rossi failed to persuade Gorn to turn a blind eye and let them keep the full horns, carved or not, with Gorn citing the state regulations to Rossi.

What hasn’t been reported was what happened to the horns after the hunt.

For this specific musk ox hunt, regulations state the horns must be cut to destroy their trophy value. The idea is to discourage hunting the animals for their horns, rather than for the meat. Only about 200 people a year choose to go on this hunt, compared to about 1,700 for a much more expensive musk ox hunt in which trophy hunting is legal.

At the time of Bell's hunt, the regulations read: “Trophy destruction of horns by Nome ADF&G or authorized agent is required for all horns prior to being removed from Unit 22. During normal business hours, ADF&G must cut horns at or above the eye and retain the distal portion of the horn.”

Gorn said that when he asked each hunter if they understood the regulation before they signed for their musk ox permits, they responded they were aware of the law.

The three men each shot a musk ox shortly after arriving at the hunting grounds outside Nome. Bell told Alaska Dispatch he went on the hunt for the meat. Rossi wanted the horns, Bell said.

Nevertheless, Bell also said he kept the full and uncut horns and had a Nome carver decorate them. He then bought them from the artist -- a move that, if they were the same horns, appears to violate the law.

In an email sent to Alaska Dispatch reporter Craig Medred earlier this year, Bell described what happened like this: “In my case I gave the horns to her (the artist) and told her what I wanted done (a sourdough face on one horn and an Eskimo face on the other with a seal and a bird on the tips).”

He recalled the horn carving in more detail to Alaska Dispatch in a recent interview, saying he asked the artist to make sure the horns were handled according to the regulations. Bell said that because it was a Saturday when his party got back into Nome after hunting, “Cliff (Judkins) and I took our horns to her (the carver). We gave her specific instructions. And then I said, ‘Before you do that, check with Fish and Game and make sure that destroys the trophy value.’ She said she would do that.”

According to Bell, the carver told him she would have to cut the horns off the skull plate to destroy the trophy value. “I said fine, do that. Cut them off, but still carve them.” Bell recalled. “I wanted the horns carved, and I wanted the trophy value destroyed. If it would have been cut in five different pieces to destroy the trophy value, that would have been fine with me."

Bell said he later emailed the artist to ensure she got approval from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but he no longer has the correspondence.

Gorn, who would have been the most likely Fish and Game employee to sign off in Nome, said he neither remembers approving the horns to be cut in this fashion nor speaking to the artist about Bell’s horns.

Gorn does remember, though, a conversation with Rossi, either before or after the hunt, about destroying the trophy value of the horns by carving them, instead of cutting them as required by law. He said he told Rossi the rules stated the horns had to be cut.

Bell also remembers that conversation, but he thought they were discussing a “gray” and “vague” area of the law.

Until inquiries from Alaska Dispatch, Gorn said, he assumed the hunting trio left the horns in the game unit and complied with the regulations.

Whose horns are these?

Hellenthal -- Bell’s campaign adviser who has the past several days worked as a go-between for the candidate and Alaska Dispatch after Bell stopped talking to the news site -- read an email that had been sent to Bell by the carver. Bell would provide only the artist’s first name, Karen. Calls to a carver named Karen who lives in Nome weren’t returned.

In the email, Karen said she remembered Bell had transferred the horns to her, but that she might not have the paperwork. She also remembered that trooper had stopped by to check the paperwork.

“Trooper Miller was satisfied that all was in order then, but that was before I had carved them,” she said in the email. “I think there is a lot of gray area in the law which was not written to include artwork.”

“I very often carve whole horns with the bones in them, as that retains the greatest creative force, rather than trophy value,” she added.

Transferring ownership of uncut horns is legal, but they must stay in the game management unit -- not be taken from the Nome area to, say Anchorage, where Bell lives. Transferring the horns with the implicit idea of buying those same horns back may not be legal, according to Sears, the Nome-based trooper.

But in order to prosecute, the state may need prove the horns taken from the area are the same ones dropped off to the carver.

After Alaska Dispatch began to ask questions in recent days, Bell now said he wasn’t sure the horns he paid $800 for and hang on his dining room wall belonged to the animal he shot in 2010.

“He claims he bought artwork,” Hellenthal said on behalf of Bell.

In a phone interview nearly a week ago, Bell said Judkins also kept horns from the musk ox he shot and had them carved. Bell wasn’t sure what Rossi did with his horns, but his “gut feeling” was Rossi also gave the horns to the carver.

Trooper Sears said if his agency’s investigation reveals Bell and others conspired to give the horns to the artist and then buy them back, they would be guilty of “skirting their own rules and regulations, and then they’ll be prosecuted for scheming to defraud the state out of its horns.”

Hunting for horns or hunting for meat?

When Bell served on the Alaska Board of Game, the issue of what you can and can't do with musk ox horns came up time and again at meetings attended by him and Judkins. Bell told Alaska Dispatch earlier this year he thought the regulations were “stupid,” and Judkins brought at least one proposal in front of the board to do away with the regulations.

The issue was discussed the year before their hunt during a November 2009 Board of Game meeting in Nome. There was a proposal then that would have allowed hunters to "destroy" the trophy value of musk ox horns by cutting from the skull instead of cutting the horn itself. The proposal failed. There was also a discussion of destroying the trophy value through transferring the horns to an artist and then buying them back after they were carved.

It was Rossi who initiated that conversation at the hearing, Pat Valkenburg, a former deputy commissioner of Fish and Game who was Rossi’s immediate supervisor at the time, told Alaska Dispatch earlier this year. At a Board of Game meeting, Valkenburg told Rossi that it wasn't in keeping with the intent of the law.

Two years later in a Nome Nugget article, Judkins was quoted as saying he had hunted musk ox in the Nome area, perhaps the same hunt he went on with Bell and Rossi. “Personally I have taken caribou in Unit 13, where antlers had to be left in the field, and musk ox in Unit 22, where the horns had to be cut off at the eye or left in the unit,” he told the newspaper in 2011.

“In both cases I was hunting for meat. But still, I would like to have brought the antlers and horns home."

Reporter Craig Medred contributed to this story. Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com and Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.