Troopers hit 'Wild West Alaska' star with slew of hunting violations

zhollander@adn.comNovember 23, 2013 

Jim West in "Wild West Alaska"

ANIMAL PLANET

Jim West, the 60-year-old mustachioed weapons aficionado at the center of the rough-edged reality TV show, "Wild West Alaska," faces a slew of criminal hunting charges.

Alaska State Troopers allege that West personally killed a bear during a guided hunt, helped a client kill a moose inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve without permission and guided numerous black bear hunts on Native corporation lands, also without permission.

Troopers seized West's Cessna 185 floatplane as part of their investigation.

"Wild West Alaska," on the Animal Planet network, focuses on the Anchorage store West founded in 1992, Wild West Guns, which is billed as Alaska's largest custom rifle and handgun shop. West, who owns the Klutina Lodge in Copper Center near Wrangell-St. Elias, is also a state-registered big game guide.

The show spotlights the gun store and a colorful cast of clients and employees, gunsmithing and wilderness hunting and fishing.

The troopers are the subject of a reality show, too. "Alaska State Troopers" airs on the National Geographic Channel.

It's tempting to turn the showdown between West and the state into a reality TV smackdown, but the case started before West's show hit the small screen this year.

The state's investigation began in 2011, when West got sideways with Ahtna Inc., the Glennallen-based Native regional corporation that owns 600,000 acres in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the rugged territory that surrounds West's lodge.

Brent Cole, an Anchorage attorney representing West, said this week he couldn't comment specifically on the charges against West until he finishes his own investigation. But Cole said the troopers were especially heavy-handed in filing criminal charges against his client.

"They could have written a letter. They could have filed a civil suit," he said. "They could have handled this through administrative processes, any number of things."

A spokesman for Animal Planet provided only a brief comment on behalf of the network this week: "Animal Planet is surprised about the charges against Jim West and the network currently is looking into the matter."

The Animal Planet website still says the show's second season will premiere on Sunday, Jan. 13.



REALITY SHOW WAR?

The state's Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals is charging West with 17 misdemeanor violations of state game and guiding laws in 2009, 2011 or 2012, according to documents filed last week in Glennallen District Court.

The state's investigation began in May 2011, just after West's bid for permission to guide hunts on Ahtna land was rejected by Ahtna land managers.

After that, West continued using Ahtna lands, according to interviews with Ahtna managers and court documents. Troopers say West took clients bear hunting on Ahtna land last year, too. They say they saw it on footage from "Wild West Alaska."

Kathryn Martin, Ahtna's vice president of land and resources, said West repeatedly scorned the process that numerous other guides follow without much complaint.

But Cole, West's attorney, said Ahtna's role in the trooper investigation is part of what he described as the strange circumstances surrounding the case.

"Most of the time, private people don't get the state to go do their bidding on civil trespass issues, so I'm not sure where Ahtna is coming from on this," he said.

Late last week, according to the Alaska Dispatch website, Cole said competition between the two reality shows prompted the investigation. He refused to elaborate on that assertion in an interview with the Daily News this week, referring only to suspicious coincidences.

The troopers say since they don't get paid by National Geographic, the dueling shows angle is a nonstarter.

"In our eyes, there is no competition," said Capt. Bernard Chastain, operations commander for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers. Troopers are "only doing our job as required by law," he said.



'HE INSULTED OUR ELDERS'

Fourteen of the 17 charges against West involve violations on Ahtna land.

A trooper investigator in May 2011 started looking into the "illegal guiding activities of registered big game guide Jimmy West on the Copper River near Copper Center," according to a sworn review of trooper reports provided with the charging documents. That's when an investigator learned West was guiding black bear hunts involving registered "bait stations" on Ahtna land without Ahtna permission, the document said.

West did get permission to guide from Ahtna for a year in 2009 or 2010, according to Heide Lingenfelter, an Ahtna land and resource specialist. But West's rude behavior during a May 2011 meeting with Ahtna's five-member land committee prompted the group to ban him altogether from Ahtna lands, she said.

"He told the land commission they didn't take care of their land, he didn't want them taking care of the land," she said. "He insulted our elders."

Ahtna contacted troopers after hand-delivering a letter on May 26 notifying West that he'd be trespassing if he entered Ahtna lands. Court documents say West ignored the Ahtna directive immediately.



HUNTS CONTINUED

On the evening of May 26, West guided a client on Ahtna land and shot a black bear himself, something that's only legal for self-defense, according to charging documents in the case. Others along on the hunt said the kill happened after the bear charged West as he was looking for a bear shot by his client.

According to case documents, West failed to file paperwork to prove he was defending his life, instead opting to forge paperwork to make it look like he shot the bear a day earlier.

An arraignment for West has yet to be scheduled.


Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

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