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Caribou antlers 'trophy value' case lands Alaska hunter on reality TV

Craig Medred
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An Alaska hunter who legally shot a caribou for an 80-year-old, blind friend is now facing a $150 fine and a mandatory appearance in a court far from his home, but he'll get to star in an episode of "Alaska State Troopers,'' the reality show.

The crime was committed by Kerry Spooner of Eagle River, a suburb north of Anchorage. He failed to destroy the "trophy value'' of the antlers on the head of the caribou he shot for meat near Sourdough, a wide spot along the Richardson Highway about 220 road miles north of the state's largest city. Spooner said he'd heard about the rule, but forgot to smash the antlers of the caribou before loading the dead animal into his truck.

A blue-collar, oil-field worker on Alaska's North Slope, Spooner said he understands he broke the law and doesn't mind paying the ticket, but believes the requirement for a mandatory appearance in court in Glennallen is a bit much.

"They won't let me just pay it,'' he said. "I have to drive back to Glennallen and pay it. I talked to the magistrate and everything. It's a hassle. I work on the Slope.''

The treatment Spooner has received is decidedly different than that troopers granted Bob Bell, a wealthy Anchorage businessman who might yet become a state senator. The Republican contender trails incumbent Democrat Hollis French by only 246 votes in West Anchorage Senate District J, and the vote count is ongoing. Bell and his supporters, who include Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, are hoping he might still emerge victorious after 1,500 absentee ballots are counted by state officials on Nov. 13.

Bell clearly came out ahead with state officials when a kerfuffle arose over his failure to comply with a requirement for big-game trophy destruction. Bell, like Spooner, obtained a subsistence hunting permit that required him to destroy his trophy, but the permit was not for a cheap road-side hunt for caribou north of Anchorage. It was for a pricey musk-ox hunt on the Seward Peninsula about 550 miles northwest of Anchorage.

And Bell was hunting not for a blind, old friend but for himself, he told Alaska Dispatch in October. Bell had flown to Nome for a meeting of the state Board of Game, which sets state hunting regulations. He was, at the time, a member of the board. After the meeting, he told Dispatch that he decided to go on a musk ox hunt north of Nome to get some meat to bring home. 

He has since stopped talking to reporters for Alaska Dispatch and during the closing days of his campaign tried to use the issues surrounding his hunt to win votes. He sent out an expensive mailer titled "Mudslinging Alert'' that, among other things, claimed he had been made a victim of the media:

Bob Bell did NOT engage in an illegal hunt — a recent investigation by the AK State Troopers (requested by The AK Dispatch) found NOTHING illegal. Bob Bell has been exonerated (cleared) of any wrongdoing.

"MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING,'' it said.

The flier was inaccurate on a couple points. Dispatch never requested a trooper investigation. Troopers started that on their own after questions were asked about Bell's musk ox hunt. And Bell was not cleared. Troopers said they didn't believe they could successfully prosecute Bell

"We can only enforce the laws as written,'' Alaska Wildlife Troopers Capt. Burke Waldron told Dispatch. "Based on the regulation as written, these permit conditions, to include cutting the horns prior to removing the remainder of the horns from the GMU (game management unit), apply to the permit holder and the same horns from the animal killed under the permit.''

Bell sidestepped that requirement by leaving his horns with an artist Nome. He has said he asked an artist to do some art work on the horns. She then sent him some art adorned horns that now hang in his home. He claims he has no way of knowing whether the horns are his or not, so he did not broke the law when he went on what has turned out to be a very controversial hunt. Long before his campaign became tangled in horn issues, the pre-hunt behavior of then state Director of Wildlife Cory Rossi came under scrutiny.

Rossi, who was later found guilty of poaching in an unrelated case, apparently tried to use his influence to get the state's Nome area wildlife biologist to waive the musk ox horn requirement for himself, then-Game Board chairman Cliff Judkins and Bell. Bell, who was in the room when Rossi talked to biologist Tony Gorn, has told varying stories about what did or didn't take place there, but has denied any knowledge of any attempt by Rossi to pressure one of his employees to break the law.

Members of the state's Nome Fish and Game advisory committee have protested that the whole thing is tacky. Noting that Bell apparently planned his own scheme to end run the law, the advisory committee called on troopers to prosecute Bell even if there is a risk the state could lose the case in court, but troopers used their discretion to let Bell walk.

Another Alaska reality-television victim?

Spooner did not get off nearly so lucky. In an interview Friday, he said troopers stopped him for driving too fast on the Richardson Highway in late October, but they didn't write him a speeding ticket. Troopers didn't, in fact, seem too concerned about his speeding on a rural highway without almost no traffic with the tourist season well over. 

They were, however, clearly interested in something else.

"They had the 'Alaska State Troopers' film crew there,'' Spooner said. "I didn't get the speeding ticket. I got the antler ticket. I guess it was a trade-off for putting me on 'Alaska State Troopers.'"

The antler-destruction rule has been controversial in the Copper River Basin of Alaska. It for a time applied to all caribou shot there during meat hunts or what Alaskans call "subsistence'' hunts. The idea behind the rule was that if people truly needed the caribou for meat, as subsistence hunting suggests, they wouldn't be worrying about bringing trophy antlers home.

Many hunters objected to that idea, however, saying they wanted a trophy as a remembrance of the hunt. That led to the antler-destruction requirement being dropped with one exception: proxy hunts. Proxy hunts are another of those hunting oddities unique to Alaska.

"Alaska residents who are blind, 65 years of age or older, or who are disabled may be eligible to have another Alaska resident hunt or fish for them,'' according to state regulations. All those people need do is file the appropriate paperwork and the state will issue them a proxy fishing or proxy hunting permit. They can then give that permit to someone else who does the hunting and fishing for them. 

Spooner had the proper proxy permit for his hunt, but failed to follow the instructions found on page 12 of the state general hunting regulations.

It says:

Proxy hunting is allowed for all deer hunts, most caribou hunts, and some moose hunts, with the following restrictions: 

Antler destruction: 
• consists of removing at least one antler from the skull plate or cutting the skull  plate in half to destroy the trophy value. 
• is required for all species. 
• is required for each animal taken by the  proxy hunter (both the proxy hunter’s animals and the beneficiary’s animals). 
• must occur at the kill site unless uncut  antlers must be submitted to ADF&G for  measuring. 
• will be completed after measuring by ADF&G.

"I had read it,'' Spooner admitted, ''and I know about it, and I forgot it.'' 

He shot a caribou for his friend, loaded it in his truck and the rush to  head home simply overlooked the regulation. He forgot, he added, in part because Alaska hunting regulations are now so complicated it's difficult to keep track of everything a hunter is supposed to do. But Spooner, who was contacted by Alaska Dispatch and not the other way around, said he is not making any excuses. 

"I know how it is these days,'' he said "I was in the wrong.

"There are a lot of rules out there, but they are the hunter's responsibility. They let me keep the caribou, so it's OK. It's just a misdemeanor, and I know the old guy needs the meat. So it was worth it.''

Plus, he said, he'll get to appear on TV in an episode of Alaska State Troopers. 

A star is born. Maybe not as big a star as Bell, but a star nonetheless for at least a few seconds of fame.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com