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Alaska guiding legend Joe Hendricks charged with 34 felonies

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of Alaska's oldest and most respected big-game guides has been charged with 34 felonies related to illegal hunting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, most of them alleging that he allowed another unidentified guide to use his exclusive guide area.  Joe Hendricks, reached by phone at a winter home in Kentucky, said he couldn't talk much about the lengthy indictment handed down on Dec. 14, but seemed mainly worried about what it would do to his reputation.

"This is going to mortify my daughter,'' he said.

Hendricks' business, Fair Chase Hunts, has been guiding big game hunters to trophy Brooks Range sheep and monster Kodiak Island grizzly bears for more than four decades. "I've had an impeccable record for 45 years,'' he said. He hinted that it might have been tarnished now by one of the people with whom he has been doing business in the Arctic. "It's pretty much assistant guide stuff,'' he said.

Alaska has a complicated guiding system that parcels out hunting opportunities to a select handful of master and registered guides. They are then free to hire state-licensed assistant guides to work for them. As it now exists, the system is similar to limited entry in the commercial fisheries off Alaska's coast. The idea behind such systems is to ensure viable incomes for the people who work in them and, theoretically, to enlist the help of these businessmen to protect public resources as wise stewards of Alaska's resources.

"What I believe is that the reasonably good guides...they work like game wardens out there,'' Hendricks said, echoing this theme. Both guides and commercial fishermen have widely pushed the "wise-steward'' idea in an effort to portray themselves as more responsible conservationists than capitalist businessmen. The theme took a big hit earlier this year, however, when it was revealed that Arne Fuglvog -- a one-time Alaska "Fisherman of the Year'' before becoming an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- had long been a fish pirate.

While busy fishing illegally, Fuglvog masqueraded as an advocate for wise management. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski named him as to a seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and Fuglvog later came close to becoming the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The management council is the federal body that largely dictates how multi-million dollar commercial fisheries off Alaska's coast are run. The fisheries service has the ultimate authority for fisheries management in all U.S. coastal waters. Fuglvog had to withdraw his candidacy after his crew ratted out his illegal activities. They revealed he had for years been making false claims about where he was fishing in order to catch fish in other areas where he could maximize profits. An investigation ensued. It eventually led to a plea agreement that saw Fuglvog plead guilty to illegal fishing and quit his job as Murkowski's aide.

All of that rocked the commercial fishing business -- not only in Alaska, but nationally. Despite that, however, the federal fisheries service is plowing ahead with plans to privatize ever more fisheries in the belief that commercial fishermen given an ownership share in public resources will behave more responsibly. This is exactly the thinking behind the guide areas in Alaska, though even Hendricks admitted some doubts about whether such schemes work.

"I don't think it's gotten any better at all,'' he said. "There's always that 5 percent. What you want to do is weed out the 5 percent. There's like 5 percent who are really bad guys. I'm not one of the bad guys. If I was one of the bad guys, you would have heard about me 25 years ago.''

Hendricks, it should be noted, is not a pilot and does not keep an airplane in his hunting camp. All of the state's most infamous outlaw guides -- men like Ron Hayes and John Graybill -- have been linked to illegal, same-day airborne hunting. With the use of an airplane, it is easy to spot trophy-size Dall sheep, grizzly bears and moose in many parts of Alaska, then land and kill them. It is the reason same-day airborne hunting was made illegal.

Hendricks has long been a critic of the use of airplanes for hunting. He once advocated that all machine-powered equipment be restricted solely to use for delivering hunters to camps from which they'd hunt on foot. 

"The airplane should not be a hunting tool,'' he said. "It is really wrong. Last year, there was this little yellow Super Cub flying around spotting sheep. They harassed those poor sheep. We could see they were all lambs and ewes (which are illegal to shoot), but we couldn't see his numbers. It was criminal. Those animals have only a short opportunity to feed and take care of themselves. They only have five, six months of feeding days to put on enough fat to survive a long dark winter. That they even survive is incredible."

These are the words of the Hendricks most hunters say they know, but the federal indictment charges there is another Hendricks -- the one who committed hunting crimes and sought to defraud the government by profiting off a federal permit he subcontracted to another guide. The most serious charges against Hendricks in the eyes of most Alaskans will no doubt have to do with a caribou and a Dall sheep.

The indictment accuses Hendricks of shooting a caribou on Aug. 23, 2007 in ANWR and then "directing his employees to conceal the carcass of said caribou in order to prevent law enforcement authorities from discovering the kill and learning that the defendant had taken the caribou illegally.'' The indictment does not specify what was illegal about the kill. The caribou season in most of the Brooks Range is open in August.

The indictment does, however, note the whole carcass of the caribou was left for the wolves and the bears, which is a major violation of hunting laws in Alaska. Called "wanton waste,'' it is considered among the most heinous of hunting violations. 

The indictment also accuses Hendricks of participating in a scheme to make a client's illegal sheep kill legal. By law, hunters can shoot only big rams -- animals with horns that form a full curl around the side of their head. According to the indictment, one of Hendrick's clients shot an undersize ram in August 2009. Whether the client was guided by Hendricks or an assistant, the indictment does not say. But it does accuse Hendricks of "unlawfully, knowingly and willfully...breaking off the tips of one of the horns of the said sheep to induce the false belief on the part of law enforcement that the horn was already naturally broken before Client A killed the animal which, if true, would have made lawful the taking of the sheep.''

The exception to the full-curl rule is that hunters can kill sheep with horns that are "broomed.'' That's a fancy word for saying they're broken off. If the accusation in the indictment is true, Hendricks would not be the first guide to pull this trick to try to keep a client out of trouble with the law. The sheep and the caribou, however, are small players in the 24 pages of charges filed against the old guide indicted on his birthday.

"I was 76 last Friday,'' Hendricks said. It was the same day the federal grand jury signed off on the indictment against him largely focused on accusations that he conducted a hunting operation "contrary to the terms and conditions which his permit was issued, by allowing another person who was not the permitee under defendant's permit to conduct commercial big game guiding services....''

Hendricks' attorney said Thursday that he doesn't yet know much about the case, but knows there are legal ways for guides to work together within the confines of the permitting system. The most obvious would be for one guide to hire another as assistant. Fairbanks attorney Bill Satterberg said he's still, however, trying to find out exactly what it is federal officials are accusing his client of doing.

"I have not been able to see any of the discovery yet,'' he said. "I've only seen the charging documents,'' which offer few specifics.

Satterberg said he didn't have enough information to comment on the charges, but he did wonder whether "the feds are just trying to get another guide out of the wilderness...They're going for felonies, and this is a 76-year-old guy."

Satterberg is familiar with federal officials going after old men. He is also the attorney for 71-year-old Jim Wilde, the Interior riverboater tackled, handcuffed and hauled off to jail by National Park Service rangers because he didn't immediately comply with their demands he stop in the middle of the Yukon River for a safety inspection. Wilde swore at the rangers and headed for shore. They chased him to the beach and manhandled him. A federal magistrate this spring found Wilde guilty of refusing to listen to the orders of rangers and of failing to put a state registration sticker on his boat. 

Northern Alaska, it would appear, is these days no place for old men. "They don't have a whole lot of respect for older folks,'' Hendricks said. "We've got some people now who think they're saving the world, though they're not.'' 

Hendricks said he wanted to speak frankly about his case, but had been advised by legal counsel to keep his mouth shut. " "It's very interesting,'' he said. "But it's something I can't discuss.'' He did, however, wax eloquent about the Arctic refuge. 

"After almost every hunt,'' he said, "I ask guys what was the most unique part of the experience? They usually say the water, the water is special. It's closer to drinking wine than the stuff you have in the city... But I say, 'No. What else?'  And they say, 'The air.'' The air is pure, but there is something else. It's the tranquility. The animals don't even make much noise. You have to be really close to the sheep to hear them bleat. And the wolves hardly even ever howl.

"For the most part, the Arctic refuge is incredibly tranquil.'' 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com