Eight people have been charged with indiscriminately gunning down dozens of caribou on the Arctic tundra near Point Hope last summer, sorting through the carcasses and salvaging meat from only the most pristine animals, according to documents filed in Kotzebue Monday.
Court records describe an opportunistic hunt, with groups of young adults out collecting bird eggs or hunting over the Fourth of July weekend opening fire with .17- and .243-caliber rifles when crossing paths with animals from the massive Western Arctic Caribou Herd.
More than 100 animals were apparently killed. But Alaska Wildlife Troopers traversing the 40-mile Suicide Trail about 25 miles east of town found 25 distinct kill sites in which the meat from at least 37 caribou had been left to rot, with some calves still trying to suckle milk from the decomposing cows.
The number of wasted animals may actually have been higher, but evidence from bones and remains documented on the tundra weeks later was inconclusive.
"We just couldn't determine whether or not they were properly salvaged or not because they were badly decomposed or they were scavenged by predators," troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. "This was a lot of kill sites, widely scattered along a 40-mile trail system. Some were found in singles or pairs and they were all located within a short distance of the trail."
The discovery and a subsequent lack of cooperation from community elders launched an eight-month investigation, replete with phone taps, undercover operations and examination of Pepsi cans left in the area.
Confronted by mounting evidence, many of the suspects eventually opened up to investigators and offered a litany of excuses for the kills and wasted meat, the charges say.
In one case, a hunter dressing his kill nicked the animal's stomach, spilling its contents onto the meat and apparently ruining it in the hunter's view, the charges say. Other hunters killed caribou only to find they had been previously shot, or had lumpy livers, or had been hit in an undesirable location like the back. Sometimes, the hunters simply killed more caribou than they could haul back on their ATVs, which were already loaded up with murre eggs.
None of the excuses was good enough, according to troopers, who at one point called the killings "by far the worst case of blatant waste" they had ever seen.
"Alaska law requires all hunters to salvage the edible meat of the animal and does not allow for hunters to leave edible meat in the field based on speculation that the meat is inedible or ruined," the charges say.
Charged with wanton waste, failure to salvage meat, or both are Point Hope residents Lazarus C. Killigvuk, 25; Randy John Oktollik, 26; Roy Oktollik, 18; Brett Oktollik, 20; Koomalook M. Stone, 18; Chester W. Koonuk, 29; Aqquilluk Hank, 30; and Roy A. Miller, 20.
Troopers first learned about the slaughter from an anonymous tip and, after verifying the death toll in late July, approached village officials in the community of 700 people about 330 miles southwest of Barrow. Instead of cooperation, however, troopers got stonewalled.
Many leaders in the Inupiat Eskimo village were skeptical of the reports, saying details of the killings had been exaggerated and that troopers were handling the case unprofessionally.
They launched their own investigation in which they were unable to find evidence of slaughter or waste, Jack Schaefer, the president of the Native Village of Point Hope, told the Daily News in August. Elders were convinced no wrongdoing had occurred, he said.
As a result, troopers recruited an informant charged with illegally importing alcohol who agreed to help in exchange for a reduced sentence, according to the charges. With troopers listening in, the informant called Koonuk and others, who then discussed the hunt, the charges say.
"Koonuk stated that his grandparents told him that if anything was wrong with the organs to leave the caribou in the field," he told troopers in a subsequent interview, the charges say.
In late July, Schaefer sent a letter to Gov. Sarah Palin regarding the "caribou die off" in which he accuses troopers of handling the case poorly and asks for the village council to be able to handle the necessary punishment, if any.
The Department of Law responded in an August letter that the investigation was ongoing and no decision would be made until it was completed. On Monday, Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the request was still pending.
"Talking about potential punishment before any trial would be premature and unfair to those involved," Leighow said in an e-mail.
Schaefer and other officials did not return calls to the Native village and city offices Monday. Attempts to reach the defendants were unsuccessful.
Andrew Peterson, an assistant attorney general at the state's Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, said he couldn't comment specifically on the case, which could be tried in either Kotzebue or Point Hope itself, because it is ongoing.
"This is still an open investigation," Ipsen said. "It could go even longer, because we still believe there's more people involved."
Wanton waste is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Failing to salvage at least the hindquarters carries a mandatory penalty of at least seven days in jail and a fine of at least $2,500.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.