The case against one of Alaska’s many reality TV stars trudges along four months after the state handed up 17 misdemeanor hunting charges against Jim West, the owner of Wild West Guns in South Anchorage. Despite the court battle, West's show “Wild West Alaska” is currently filling people’s living rooms here and Outside with boisterously rustic, 30-minute scenarios from the Last Frontier.
The attorney representing Jim West argues, among other things, the state has dodged requests for additional evidence while the prosecution says the defense is asking for nothing short of a private researcher. West has been charged with various hunting violations, including trespassing on Alaska Native lands while guiding a black bear hunt.
West is the colorful lead character of Animal Planet’s “Wild West Alaska,” which promotes Anchorage's Wild West Guns shop and the state’s frontier lifestyle. The second season of the show began in late December, and its next episode is set for Thursday.
West is best known in the world of guns and hunting for building a compact, two-piece, bear-stopping firearm: the $2,600 "Alaskan CoPilot.” But his fame grew when the reality show began promoting West’s gun shop as the largest and most successful in the state.
The Discovery Channel -- parent to show host Animal Planet -- touts the show as a chance to “step into a world where bears outnumber people and off-the-beaten path is the only direction to go.”
But allegedly illegal hunting methods led West in the direction of the Alaska Superior Court. He’s yet to spend much time in a courtroom, and his attorney Patrick Bergt argued in a recent court filing that the state has declined to provide some information critical to defending West.
In its motion to compel, the defense asks for additional investigative reports, notes, recordings or evidence generated by the Alaska State Troopers, the agency that led the investigation of West. It asks for communications between Alaska Native corporation Ahtna Inc. and the state’s Department of Public Safety. It asks for inter-agency communications among troopers related to the West investigation.
Among other requests, the defense is also asking for a list of all the hunters with state-registered bait stations in the same Game Management Unit (GMU) that West placed his. It wants the names of hunters with registered bait stations from 2009-2013 and “details of any investigations by the (troopers) into the legality of those bait stations,” the motion says. “This material is likely to contain impeachment information tending to show Ahtna’s and other witness’s bias against Mr. West.”
In its opposition to the motion, the state notes West’s defense received 783 pages of discovery. The documents began accumulating in the Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals at the start of the case, and all of the information was not fully available until after the motion to compel was filed, the state says. It’s still opposing the motion, however.
A large portion of the case is actually a civil dispute, the defense argues, between landowners and land users. Ahtna is seeking to use the criminal justice system to keep West from profiting off legal use of the land, the complaint says. The state’s role in the “unsavory fray” is somewhat expected “given that a television show about the Alaska State Troopers … directly competes with Mr. West’s television show on Animal Planet.”
After his Cessna was seized days before the 2013 big game hunting season opened, West was forced to cancel four spring bear hunts, harming his ability to produce his “national television show,” the defense argues.
A lengthy investigation
Along with the gun shop, West also owns the Klutina Lodge in Copper Center, a small community located on the Richardson Highway between Fairbanks and Valdez. A historic community along one of the state's oldest trails, Copper Center is place where the winters are long and cold -- and summers are smoldering.
Alaska State Troopers allege West's illegal hunting operations were based out of his lodge near the famous Copper River.
In 2011, a Glennallen-based Alaska State Wildlife Trooper was tipped that West might be hunting bear at bait stations located on private lands owned by Ahtna Inc., according to troopers’ spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. That triggered an investigation, she said.
The investigation, which soon grew to include multiple agencies, led to illegal acts dating back to 2009, according to troopers.
Troopers allege that West, while working as a big game guide that year, unlawfully guided a hunt on federal lands within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. It is legal to hunt in the preserve portion of the 13.2-million-acre federal reserve that’s bigger than the nation of Switzerland, but authorities say West lacked the necessary concession permit to guide hunts there.
All lands east of the Copper River belong to the national park, and Ahtna holds some private lands.
Then in 2011, and again in 2012, they charged that West trespassed on the Native-owned lands within the Cooper River Valley while guiding black bear hunters. West was at one of his registered bear bait sites, illegally placed on private lands, when a client killed a black bear, according to authorities. That is a violation of state guiding statutes, as is the failure to remove bear bait stations at the end of the hunting season. Authorities claim West failed to do that, too.
‘Contrary to what we discussed’
Correspondence between Ahtna and West depicts a spat over land use.
In a May 25, 2011 letter, the corporation’s Vice President of Land and Resource Kathryn Martin wrote that Ahtna was prepared to approve a hunting permit in the southern portion of Copper River if West met several criteria. They requested he provide the names of six hunters and specific GPS coordinates for his bait stations.
However, Ahtna then learned West had already set bait stations along the Copper River and had taken one bear. “This is contrary to what we discussed,” the letter says. Additionally, Martin wrote that West showed a lack of respect during a May 17 land committee meeting. He was disrespectful to the committee and Alaska Native elders in attendance, and told the committee how they should run the lands, she said.
Having disregarded Ahtna’s permit instructions, Martin decided West would not be issued any permit in 2011. She ordered West to remove his bait stations that same day.
In a response letter five days later, West apologized for offending the committee but said he’d been asked to relay the concerns of the Klutina River Guide Association, “even those that I may not personally hold.”
He also wrote that he met with Martin on May 25 and she granted four predator-control permits. Two days later, he said he got word from his two additional clients, who said they were told they’d not be issued permits if they were hunting with West.
West says he removed his bait stations the following day, though troopers’ investigative reports indicate officers found them the next year during and after the hunting season. Troopers reportedly used footage from “Wild West Alaska” to pinpoint locations where the hunting took place.
Ordinary high water mark
Defense attorney Bergt argues his client moved the bait stations off Native lands and onto state land. He said Alaska owns land under “ordinary high water” on all navigable waterways, and West was “lawfully permitted to bait and hunt on the river or on any land under that mark.”
Further, the defense is asking the state to produce documents in which the state asserts ownership of submerged land and navigable waters in Alaska, specifically the GMU including Copper River. The motion cites one 2011 case involving a Dream Creek lodge owner over the waterway’s use. The state’s “assistant attorney general issued a letter in which she cites … ‘under the constitution and statutes public use of water and the land below the ordinary high water mark is not considered trespassing.’
“In the present case, the state is seemingly changing its previously stated position,” the motion says.
Assistant Attorney General Arne Soldwedel responded in the state’s opposition that troopers’ investigation found the area where West placed his bait sites was well above the ordinary high water mark, and “therefore not on state shoreland.”