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Trooper probe shows Alaska Senate candidate Bob Bell knew how to get around law

Craig Medred
Courtesy Bob Bell

In a decision that appears to make a shambles of efforts to keep trophy hunters out of subsistence hunts, the Alaska State Troopers have concluded Alaska Senate candidate Bob Bell may have known more than anyone about what is legally necessary to abide by a state law that supposedly calls for horn and antler destruction in what are supposed to be meat hunts.

Troopers have decided Bell -- a former member of the Alaska Board of Game -- found a big loophole in the law that allows a hunter to give away the horns of a kill, and then have someone send him replacement horns as long as he isn't sure the horns are actually his.

Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, said Friday that the decision by troopers makes it obvious "there are issues related to this regulation as it is currently written."

"As with any other regulation for which we determine we have issues, we will re-examine this regulation at the next regularly scheduled Board meeting for this area which is not this cycle, rather the next (2013),'' he added. "I am not sure if we will 'dump' the regulation or try to rewrite it based on input from staff, the public, the local AC (advisory committees), the Board and public safety."

Vincent-Lang is already facing one angry advisory committee in Nome and will likely face others. In rural Alaska, the troopers' action is being viewed as giving special favors to white guys from the city while Alaska Natives along the Kuskokwim River are being prosecuted for breaking fishing regulations to try to feed their families.

If anyone had an obligation to bend over backward to try to follow sometimes complicated state hunting and fishing regulations, it was a state Board of Game member like Bell, said Charlie Lean, vice chairman of the Nome advisory council.

Board members "understood the intent of the law,'' he said. "They are members of a body that passed the law and as such are morally bound to follow their own law regardless of their vote on the regulation. Who can respect these individuals who put themselves above all others? These hunters were bound to have their horns cut since they intended to take them south. They did not. There is no record that they visited ADF&G.

"(The Department of Law) and the troopers have not done their job."

Maybe Bell could have beaten the rap in court, Lean added, but troopers still had the responsibility to charge him.

"They may have not won the case,'' he said, "or they may have.  Many of us have gotten our nose bloodied, but still won the fight.  These guys need to have their hypocrisy made public."

The controversial law requiring horn destruction during subsistence hunts was widely discussed while Bell was a member of the Alaska Board of Game. It is intended to ensure meat hunts don't become trophy hunts. The horn-destruction requirement was used for musk ox in the Nome area to organize a hunt without forcing local hunters go to through a complicated process to see who would get a limited number of permits.

Instead, any Alaskan was allowed to pick up a subsistence musk ox permit at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Nome, but the hunter had to agree the "destruction of horns by Nome ADF&G or authorized agent is required for all horns prior to being removed from (Game Management) Unit 22. During normal business hours, ADF&G must cut horns at or above the eye and retain the distal portion of the horn."

The thought was that mainly Nome-area residents would hunt, and trophy hunters from the city would stay home because there were no trophies to be had.

A wealthy, 69-year-old Anchorage businessman, Bell picked up a subsistence permit and went on a hunt in 2010. Subsistence is generally defined in Alaska as hunting for food. Bell said he wanted a musk ox to feed his family who live more than 500 miles southeast of Nome in Alaska's largest city.

The animal's horns were never destroyed by Fish and Game as required by regulation. No one knows what became of them. Bell said he gave them to a Nome artist, and she was supposed to destroy them. At the same time, he said, he agreed to pay the artist $800 for some musk ox horns adorned with art. Some time after the hunt, she shipped some horns to Bell. The horns are intact and would have been illegal for Bell to bring home.

But because the horns have art on them, and because Bell doesn't really know if the horns are his, he says they're perfectly legal.

Troopers agree, and on Friday indicated Bell wouldn't have needed to go to the trouble of having the horns engraved.

"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, apply to the permit holder and the same horns from the animal killed under the permit,'' Capt. Burke Waldron said in an email to Alaska Dispatch.

Queried further, Waldron allowed that the situation would be different if someone"pre-planned'' something simply to get around the law. A hunter couldn't, for instance, arrange something with an artist before going on a hunt.

"Two or more people cannot pre-plan to do what you describe,'' he wrote. "However, it is very difficult to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that people conspired to do that."

He was then sent three questions from Alaska Dispatch by email:

So I can do it as long as I don't pre-plan it?

Can I dump the horns with any artist in Nome, or is there a list of acceptable artists?

And if the law is this easy to get around, why do we even have it?

Waldron provided a one-sentence answer:

We can only enforce the laws as they’re written.

Wildlife staff advised the state Board of Game on how to write the musk ox regulation. State wildlife biologists have long been under the impression it required subsistence permit holders to make sure the musk ox horns were destroyed.

The biologists work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The troopers work for the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Different state assistant Attorney Generals advise the two departments.

Some biologists within Fish and Game were scratching their heads Friday. Familiar with DNA testing, some said that it should have been possible for troopers to get a search warrant for Bell's horns and any musk ox meat or hide left in his home. Any meat would likely already have been eaten, but musk ox hides -- which are reputed to have the best fur in the world -- are often kept by hunters. With horns and fur, the biologists said, it would be possible -- though not easy -- to determine if Bell had hide and horns from the same Seward Peninsula musk ox. That would be illegal.

The biologists, however, are known for being zealous about rules. There was a controversy in Fish and Game in 2011 when a biologist in Nome said he'd been pressured to break the law by then-division director Corey Rossi, now a convicted poacher. Rossi wanted to find a way to sidestep the law to take home the horns after his subsistence musk-ox hunt. Rossi was on the same 2010 musk-ox hunt with Bell, as was then-Board of Game chairman Cliff Judkins. Judkins also wanted to take home horns.

Area biologist Tony Gorn told them they couldn't do that.

The latest ruling from troopers would indicate that if the two had been as smart as Bell they would not have needed to have a conversation with Gorn about how to get around the law; they could simply have given their horns away in Nome and asked to have some unidentified horns mailed to them later.

Bell is a running for a state Senate seat from Anchorage. He is supporter of Gov. Sean Parnell's plan to reduce taxes on the oil industry. Parnell is in charge of troopers and Fish and Game.

Both Bell and his opponent -- incumbent Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat -- have come under fire for their fundraising. A complaint lodged with the Alaska Public Offices Commission claims French's campaign has been working secretly and illegally with a supposedly independent group -- Putting Alaskans First -- to further his campaign. The agency has said it will take that up after the campaign.

Meanwhile, the APOC has fined Bell $390 for failing to fully disclose clients who have contracts with his engineering company. His company has made millions working for Exxon Mobil Corp., BP and other oil companies.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com