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Alaska wildlife conservation director charged with helping illegally kill bears

Craig Medred
Stephen Nowers Illustration

The director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation has been charged with 12 counts of illegal hunting related to guiding activities in the bear-rich forests on the north side of Cook Inlet across from Anchorage, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Troopers on Thursday issued a statement saying Corey L. Rossi, 51, of Palmer took two out-of-state men on a bear hunt in the early summer of 2008 and then covered up their kills. Rossi was at the time a licensed assistant guide on the verge of joining the administration of then-Gov. Sarah Palin.

Rossi was not immediately available for comment. 

A former predator control officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rossi is a longtime friend of Chuck and Sally Heath, Palin's parents. After Palin took office in 2007, Sally lobbied her daughter to have Rossi named commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The commissioner oversees all wildlife and fisheries management in the state. Sally Heath, in an email to Palin, noted that almost everyone would object to Rossi as unqualified, but added those "are the very same people who said the same thing about you."

Rossi did not get the commissioner's job, but a special job -- assistant commissioner for abundance management -- was created for him within state government. He moved into the newly created job in December 2008, just months after his alleged illegal bear hunt. Gov. Sean Parnell promoted Rossi to wildlife director in March 2010. A staunch advocate of killing predators -- wolves and bears -- to boost prey populations of moose and caribou within the state, Rossi has been unpopular with many in the agency he runs.

His qualifications have repeatedly been called into question. He lacks a college degree and his prime professional association with wildlife has involved killing rats and foxes in the Aleutian Islands. His associations with Alaska's big-game guiding industry have also raised suspicions. Rossi has continued to work as a guide while employed in the wildlife division by exploiting a loophole in a state policy that bans wildlife division employees from that business.

Rossi has continued guiding hunters for feral reindeer, which are not considered a big-game species in Alaska.

Rossi has also been active with the organization Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a somewhat controversial hunter advocacy group. Guide Aaron Bloomquist, who has a business relationship with Rossi, was recently handed coveted, special permits from the wildlife division for bison, Dall sheep and musk ox. He is to take the permits to the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo in Salt Lake in February where they are to be auctioned to raise funds for the organization.

While this has been going on, Rossi has been lobbying to try to expand the wildlife director's authority over those permits to gain the power to change state hunting rules. Some in the department say he appears to wish to make it possible for the people who pay thousands for such permits, sometimes as much as $100,000, to obtain easy access to their hunts by means of helicopters.

The charges against Rossi were expected to send a shock wave through the state's hunting community and make him even more controversial. The political ramifications of citing him with 12 misdemeanors were apparently not taken lightly in a state where violations of hunting and fishing laws are considered serious crimes.

Troopers made it clear they did not act on their own.

"Charges were filed by the Department of Law, Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, following an investigation by the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, Wildlife Investigations Unit after learning of the offenses through an unrelated out-of-state operation conducted by another agency," the trooper statement said.

According to that statement, here is what Rossi did:

Rossi took a couple non-resident hunting in Game Management Unit 16B in June of 2008. GMU 16B is the area in and around Mount Susitna, an easily visible landmark from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. It is a wild and undeveloped area with a bounty of bears. Rossi's hunters killed three of them. Rossi shot another. Alaska law at the time required the hunters to have the hides sealed. Sealing, which basically involves marking the hides for identification, is one of the ways state officials keep track of how many bears are killed. 

"Rossi falsified the sealing forms by claiming that he killed the three bears taken during the hunt," according to the state. "Rossi submitted falsified big game hunt records indicating the two out of state hunters were unsuccessful in taking game. Rossi also submitted a permit hunt report indicating that he killed all four bears."

The report does not say why Rossi did that, but there are possible reasons. The hunters with him might have filled their bear tags before the hunt, or they might have been planning to hunt bears again after the hunt. By Rossi claiming the kills, they would be free of bag limit restrictions. Troopers have made no accusations about money changing hands, but it is not uncommon for guides in Alaska to receive sizable "tips" for helping out clients.

One once boasted he got handed $10,000 for shooting a moose a client's wife had shot at and missed, and then telling her she'd killed it.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com