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Alaska wildlife official faces new allegations of illegal trophy hunting

Craig Medred
AWCC photo

Not long after Corey Rossi organized what is alleged to be an illegal bear hunt for a trio of Outside hunters in 2008, he teamed with two members of the state Board of Game in an effort to scam themselves an illegal trophy hunt for musk ox in a subsistence-hunting area on the Seward Peninsula north of Nome, according to present and former members of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The scheme failed only because a lower-level state biologist refused to play along. Nome area wildlife biologist Tony Gorn told Rossi, Alaska Board of Game Chairman Cliff Judkins of Wasilla and then-Game Board member Bob Bell of Anchorage that he couldn't approve of their bending the law in a way that would allow them to ship the trophy horns of the harvested musk ox south from the coastal village of Shishmaref.

To limit trophy hunting for the 3,000 musk oxen that roam the Seward Peninsula, state hunting regulations clearly state that anyone who obtains a subsistence musk ox hunting permit for the area must agree to destroy the horns. The regulation has served to effectively limit the subsistence hunt to meat hunters -- not head hunters.

State records indicate about 1,700 hunters from across the country now apply for fewer than 100 drawing permits to hunt trophy musk ox in Western Alaska. Head hunting is legal in those drawing hunts, though hunters are required to salvage the meat, too. While many people pay to enter the lottery for just the chance to shoot a trophy, only about 200 people per year pick up subsistence registration permits to shoot a musk ox for meat -- despite the fact that those permits are available to any Alaska resident hunter free of charge.

Rossi's alleged scam came around the time he was moving up the ranks in former Gov. Sarah Palin's Department of Fish and Game. Under current Gov. Sean Parnell, Rossi rose to director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation. Recently, the controversial director was charged with 12 counts related to organizing an illegal bear hunt. His fall has been swift and could spiral even further downward.

'Discretionary authority'

The musk ox drawing hunts involve significant cost. Among the best known is on Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea. Any hunter lucky enough to win a permit to hunt there must pay a license fee of $500 for residents ($1,000 for non-residents,  $1,500 for aliens). But that's only a small part of the cost. The full expense of a hunt on the remote island is estimated at $4,000 to $10,000 for airline flights, accommodations and, if necessary, a guide.

Rossi had a plan to beat the system and hold down the costs. By using his influence, coupled with that of the two board members, he hoped to pressure a Fish and Game employee into waiving the horn-destruction requirement for the subsistence hunt on the Seward Peninsula. Subsistence permits were free and readily available, and the coastal community of Shismaref is more accessible than Nunivak Island, 135 miles offshore in the Bering Sea.

All Rossi figured he needed to do was get Gorn to roll over on permit standards imposed per the department's "discretionary authority" over hunt conditions. Rossi apparently figured Gorn would show the discretion, so to speak, to waive the rule for three top state officials. Instead, the biologist said no.

The trio, Gorn said, "put me in a very, very uncomfortable position." Even after he showed them the permit forms they'd signed -- permit forms that clearly stipulated they accepted of the requirement to destroy the horns -- the men pushed the issue. Gorn held his ground.

He did nervously contact his boss immediately after the incident, however. "It is not every day that a fairly young biologist working in one of our most remote areas offices gets a visit from three, high-level state officials," said regional supervisor Steve Machida.

"Any nervousness that Tony felt during the conversation was attributable to the fact that he had an assistant commissioner and two Board of Game members in his office."

Pat Valkenberg, a former deputy commissioner of Fish and Game, said Rossi believed he'd found a loophole in state law. "He had figured out you had to have the horns cut," Valkenberg said, but Rossi was under the belief he could get around that by giving the musk ox horns intact to a Native artist in the area, having her do some some scrimshaw on them, and later "buying them back from her." Valkenberg told Rossi that wasn't in keeping with the intent of law and had probably already been tried and rejected anyway.

Valkenberg was at the time Rossi's immediate supervisor. He is now retired. Valkenberg said he is unsure whether the musk ox hunt took place while Rossi was still an assistant commissioner or after he had been named wildlife director. Valkenberg does remember clearly that the discussion with Rossi about his plan to beat the system came during a Game Board meeting in Nome. The board met there in November 2009. The musk ox hunt didn't take place until the next year.

'Corey Rossi knows everybody'

Rossi was named Wildlife Division director in March 2010. He originally joined Fish and Game on the Palin's orders in 2008. Rossi lacked a college degree, but he was a friend of the Palin family and he had something of a wildlife management background. Before going to work for Fish and Game, he was a predator-killing specialist for the federal government in Alaska.

Rossi was named wildlife director by former Commissioner of Fish and Game Denby Lloyd, reportedly at the urging of Gov. Sean Parnell. Lloyd said Tuesday he didn't want to talk about the Rossi appointment. Valkenberg said "Denby was willing to take a chance" on Rossi because of the latter's strengths.

"Corey is one of those amazing guys who knows everybody," Valkenberg said. A political player, Rossi stood out in an agency that employs many people more comfortable working with animals than fellow humans. The picture most people paint of Rossi is of a world-class schmooze who became a tyrant when promoted to management. One state employee who used to work with Rossi described him as a friendly guy with whom you could discuss anything until he made up his mind; then all discussions were expected to cease forever.

"He liked to say the only authority he had was that delegated by the commissioner, and the only authority we had was that delegated by him," the Fish and Game source said. "He was a top-down guy. He expected people to follow his instructions."

'The final blow'

Some in the department have expressed surprise that Gorn managed to hang onto his job after he refused to follow Rossi's instructions. Judkins, for his part, later decided to try to change the law rather than abuse it. The Game Board was meeting in Anchorage this week, and one of the subjects on its agenda was a proposed repeal of the requirement subsistence hunters destroy the horns of Seward Peninsula musk ox. The proposal was first placed before the seven-member board last January at Judkins' request.

In January 2011, Judkins told The Nome Nugget newspaper that being forced to destroy the horns of his musk ox was "the final blow.... Personally, I have taken (Nelchina) caribou in Unit 13 where antlers had 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. In both cases, I was hunting for meat; but still, I would like to have brought the antlers and horns home."

Neither Judkins nor Bell returned phone calls about this story, and Rossi is not talking to the media. Bell is no longer on the board. His term expired in March 2010. Judkins' term ends in June. First appointed to the board by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003, he was later named to another term by Palin. He represents one of the few things on which the two former governors have ever agreed. A former state wildlife biologist, Judkins now runs a home-inspection and energy-rating business.

Valkenberg said Rossi was trying to help Judkins out in 2010 with the musk ox hunt. It was the same sort of doing-a-friend-a-favor act that appears to have gotten Rossi in trouble on the bear hunt.

"Cliff had serious back problems," Valkenberg said, and it was looking like his hunting days might be about over. Given the circumstances, Judkins didn't have time to wait to draw a permit for a trophy musk ox. "Corey was pretty sympathetic," Valkenberg said. "Corey was doing this as a favor to Cliff."

Valkenberg added that he was invited along on the hunt. During a break at the Nome board meeting, Valkenberg said, Rossi approached and said "he and Cliff were planning this subsistence musk ox hunt ... and then he asked me if I wanted to go along, and I said, 'No.'"

Valkenberg said the degree of fraternization between Fish and Game staff and board members made "me feel uncomfortable." Valkenberg just didn't think it looked good for two of the state's top wildlife officials to be going on a hunt with two members of the board that set hunting rules. Valkenberg said he also went and talked to Gorn.

Valkenberg asked if a scheme like that suggested by Rossi had ever been floated. He remembers Gorn saying "it was not the first time that idea had come up."

Valkenberg has always been highly respected in Fish and Game, even by people who philosophically disagree with him on how intensively the state should manage predators. As deputy director, he had authority over Rossi. Valkenberg let Gorn know that if a problem arose, his back was covered, but Valkenberg added that at the time he was confident Rossi, Judkins and Bell "were going to do the right thing." Only later did he hear what he described as "hall talk" about the trio putting the squeeze on Gorn.

Fiberglass replica

Neither Rossi's management style nor his influence peddling rose to prominence until he was charged with illegal hunting as well. His almost-illegal acts were not considered a significant scandal, though many state wildlife biologists considered Rossi putting Gorn on the spot "a shitty thing to do." Valkenberg said that after hearing such comments, he questioned Rossi about the hunt.

As Rossi categorized the discussion with Gorn, Valkenberg said, the four men eventually "agreed" that Rossi was pushing too far into a "gray area." No overt threats were made, Machida said, adding that the conversation was "friendly and cordial." The message, however, was clear -- Rossi, Judkins and Bell were looking for a loophole in the law and counting on Gorn to help them find it.

Rossi later told Valkenberg that he complied with Gorn's decision that the men should abide by the law and later "gave the horns away." He said the last he heard of it was that Rossi figured out how to make horns out of fiberglass, recreated the horns of his kill, and attached the artificial horns to the musk ox skull he'd brought back from Shishmaref. He then mounted the musk ox himself, Valkenberg said. "I don't really know what Cliff and Bob Bell ended up doing," he added.

Valkenberg commended Gorn for his handling of the affair and added that though unusual this sort of thing is not unheard of. "It is not uncommon with other sorts of dignitaries," he said; people regularly think the law should be bent to accommodate them because of their position in business or government. However, Rossi presented special problems for Fish and Game because of his outside business dealings.

Rossi was a licensed assistant guide when he came to work for Fish and Game, and he moonlighted as the operator of a reindeer-hunting business in the Pribilof Islands. Fish and Game employees are generally not allowed to be big-game guides, and Rossi let his assistant guide's license lapse. But, it was eventually decided he could continue guiding the Pribilof reindeer hunts because the animals were on private land and the state played no role in the management of the herd. Rossi apparently set up the reindeer hunting business while in the Pribilofs working as an employee of the federal government, and he used the business -- Great Northern Safari Company -- to gain political influence in the hunting community. State officials did discuss the business after Rossi's hire.

Valkenberg said he consulted with Tom Lawson, then director of administrative services for Fish and Game, about the ethics of Rossi guiding reindeer hunters. Lawson served as ethics adviser for the state agency. "I was willing to trust his judgment," Valkenberg said. Lawson is now retired. Lawson's wife answered the phone at his home in Auke Bay, relayed a message and said "he is not available."

Rossi was apparently guiding reindeer hunters as late as last August. At the Western Hunting & Conservation Expo in Salt Lake in February 2011, Great Northern offered an August hunt at auction as a fundraiser for an Alaska hunting group -- Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife Alaska. An auction catalog listed Rossi's wife, Terry, as the contact, but the email address provided was Corey's. Terry Rossi has never been licensed as a guide in Alaska. Corey's assistant guide license expired at the end of 2009, but the ruling he had from Lawson at Fish and Game was that guiding for a non-big-game animal like reindeer was not guiding.

Employment outside Fish and Game

Fish and Game is still wrestling with the issue of outside employment, which never used to be much of a problem. Traditionally, Valkenberg said, commissioners and directors were "usually chosen from the ranks of the department," and they tended to be so devoted to their work they had no time for outside business interests. There was a time, too, when outside business activities were banned and even employees who held trapping licenses were limited to fur sales of $1,500 year to avoid any potential conflicts of interest or appearances of such.

As state Fish and Game salaries have fallen and the agency has become more politicized, those rules have, however, been relaxed. Some state biometricians now make more money at their moonlighting jobs than their state jobs. Against that backdrop and given the politically shifting nature of the agency, nothing about Rossi's behavior or his hire seems especially unusual. The agency is no longer run by fisheries and wildlife professionals the way it was for decades after statehood.

The current commissioner, Cora Cambpell, has a bachelor of science degree in education. She was picked as commissioner because she is smart, well-connected to the state's powerful commercial fishing industry and attended Pacific Lutheran Unviersity, the same school from which Gov. Parnell graduated.

When Rossi left his job because criminal charges had been filed against him, Campbell sent staff an email saying "I want to thank Corey for his service." The email from Campbell informed wildlife biologists that Rossi had "announced his resignation ... for personal reasons."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com