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Cantwell resident in trouble for helping troopers salvage caribou

Stephen Nowers illustration

Only in Alaska would you find a story like this: Two state law enforcement officers go hunting in a new national park. They shoot a big game animal. It stumbles into the old part of the park. There it dies. They go to get help recovering it. A Good Samaritan comes to their aid. And now the latter is on the verge of getting busted by the National Park Service.

Officials at Denali National Park and Preserve say they don't have much choice. The yet-to-be-identified civilian drove an all-terrain vehicle illegally into the park. Yes, he was aiding some Alaska State Troopers who asked for help after shooting a caribou in the open-to-hunting new park -- only feet from the closed-to-hunting old park, Denali superintendent Paul Anderson said. But park rangers don't want it to look like they're showing favoritism because troopers were involved in this affair.

Not that park officials don't sympathize with the ATV driver's plight.

"You should assume you can trust a trooper,'' Anderson said. "We had an interesting conversation about this.''

Exactly how interesting, Anderson would not say. But some in the federal agency are none too happy with their counterparts in state law enforcement. One park ranger observed that the two troopers involved were "lucky'' the caribou they shot wasn't in the old park when they shot it. The troopers didn't have a GPS to determine precisely where they were, the ranger said, and their marginal map would only have permitted them to know they were very close to the old park boundary.

Still, acting chief ranger John Leonard said park officials are confident the caribou was about 20 feet outside the old park boundary when shot. Given the situation, he said, rangers did a thorough investigation, which is what led to the discovery the troopers enlisted the aid of someone not registered as a "federally qualified subsistence user" to help retrieve the caribou from the park after it died.

And there's the rub: only federal qualified subsistence users are allowed to ride ATVs into Denali Park.

"It's kind of bullshit in my mind," said Gordon Carlson, the Denali Borough assemblyman from Cantwell. "He was only asked to help."

Carlson described the man in question as "a local kid who showed up around Cantwell with his girlfriend this summer." Each summer, small wilderness communities along the state's limited road system attract adventurous young people the way Fashion's Night Out at Saks Fifth Avenue draws the glamorous.

Many of these same roadside communities also sometimes attract Alaska hunters -- including troopers -- looking to game Alaska's federal subsistence system, which grants special hunting privileges to people living in designated rural communities. Subsistence hunters usually enjoy longer hunting seasons. Often they get to hunt when others cannot. Sometimes they get bigger bag limits. And in some places they get special dispensations to hunt in parks, as is the case near Cantwell.

Old mining roads that run back into the Dunkle Hills above the community of 250 people on the south slope of the Alaska Range are open to ATV use by registered subsistence users.

One of the registered subsistence users hunting caribou in that area this year was Alaska Wildlife Trooper James Ellison, who moved north from his post on the Kenai Peninsula near the end of the short Alaska summer. His hunting buddy wasn't identified.

No investigation

Trooper Lt. Lantz Dahlke in Fairbanks said Monday there's not a lot his agency can do in the situation. "First off all, Ellison was on his day off," Dahlke said. "He wasn't acting as a trooper." As an agency, Dahlke added, troopers really don't have the authority to restrict state employees from engaging in legal hunting.

And everyone agrees Ellison's hunt -- while unusual by national standards that ban hunting in parks -- was legal. Hunting in the "new" (now 32-year-old) additions to Alaska's "old" national parks is legal for a special class of rural Alaska residents. Dahlke expressed reservations about the federal law, but defended Ellison.

"Why is he any different than anyone else?" Dahlke asked. "Anybody else who moves there (can hunt.)"

To treat a trooper otherwise, just because he is a trooper, would be "prejudice and bias," Dahlke said. But he added that he wasn't privy to all the details of the case. "As far as I know, it's still under investigation," he said, adding that "we did not conduct an investigation. I don't know the details."

Federal officials, as is often the case, provided only limited about their investigation; charges have not yet been filed. Carlson said there was a "blue shirt" hunting with Ellison. Troopers in Alaska are regularly described as "brown shirts" and "blue shirts."

The brown shirts wear brown uniforms and are the priority enforcement officers for hunting and fishing laws. The blue shirts wear blue uniforms and focus on enforcement of state traffic laws and crime, though there is crossover between brown and blue shirts. Both are legally empowered to enforce all state laws.

There are two blue shirts in Cantwell: Jeremy Stone, who transferred to the community from Kodiak recently, and Eric Jeffords, who has been there a while.

According to Carlson, Cantwell hasn't had the greatest of luck with troopers' involvement with the issue of subsistence.

The federal subsistence law for Alaska was written to protect "traditional" hunting and fishing by locals. It is generally not taken too well when new folks arrive in town and immediately claim subsistence priorities, though there is not much anyone can do, as Dahlke noted.

"The trooper has been a resident of Cantwell for a short period of time," Denali Park spokeswoman Kris Fister explained in an email. "But there is no length of residency requirement for a Park Resident Zone under federal subsistence guidelines. When an Alaskan becomes a Cantwell resident, living within the three-mile radius of the post office, they immediately qualify as a federal subsistence user."

No love for the Parkies

As such, they're entitled to those special hunting privileges, which makes the situation difficult for the park service. The agency has long wrestled with its image in a state full of independent-minded people. The late Joe Vogler built an entire statewide political organization -- the Alaska Independence Party -- around the idea of throwing all of the Feds out of Alaska.

"They're flying over harassing you when you're out hunting," Carlson said. Now "they're going to let this go."

"The park service is out of control," observed another Cantwell resident who declined to be identified.

Anderson, Fister and Leonard insisted that is not the case. No one is being let go. This case "raised the ire of local folks because they (the troopers) haven't been there very long," Fister said, but the troopers didn't get special treatment. The park service is trying, Leonard said, to enforce the laws fairly, with as few incidents as possible.

The agency has been sensitive since last fall, when two rangers in the Yukon-Charley National Preserve got a little carried away trying to stop 73-year-old Interior resident Jim Wilde in his boat on the Yukon River.

When Wilde refused to stop immediately in midstream as ordered and instead headed for shore, rangers gave chase. After following him to shore, they took him down, handcuffed and hauled him off to jail, far away in Fairbanks. Wilde, a previously law-abiding man charged as a criminal, suffered a few uncomfortable days.

The park service ended up living a nightmare. A U.S. attorney working for the park service threw a packet of charges at the old man. Wilde pleaded innocent and hired a bulldog Fairbanks attorney who bit back at the Feds. By the time the case went before a U.S. magistrate in Fairbanks in April, Alaska's governor and top elected officials were all in Wilde's corner, and it was unclear exactly who was more on trial -- the old man or the federal agents. The former certainly came off better in the public arena.

Almost six months later, the magistrate is still wrestling with how to rule. The park service is still struggling to patch things up with the folks along the Yukon. And all over Alaska -- in the state's eight national parks and three national preserves -- rangers are treading lightly.

In Cantwell, rangers can't do anything about the shooting, but they feel duty-bound to do something about the law that was broken. The park service wasn't all that comfortable with a compromise that allowed terrain-mashing, off-road vehicles into the new park, but went along to help out local folks. Failing to ticket a non-local who drove an ATV in the park would crack the door open to let anyone ride there.

"The trooper who shot the animal is a qualified subsistence user who has subsistence rights to hunt in the 'new park' additions, which is where the animal was shot," Fister said. "The park's investigation found no evidence that the caribou was shot inside the 'old' or original park.

"They should have notified the park service that they were going to go in and get it," Anderson said. That is the general rule in a case like this, but he conceded the limited communications in remote parts of Alaska can make that difficult. 

"The troopers received no special treatment," Fister said. "Given the identical set of circumstances, charges would not be appropriate for anyone."

"They should have notified the park service that they were going to go in and get it," Anderson reiterated.

Still, troopers did manage to make contact with someone.

"One of the individuals who went with them to retrieve the meat will be charged with illegally using an ATV in the new park additions as that person was not a federal subsistence user," Fister said.

Whether troopers volunteer to pay his fine remains to be seen.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

(Editor's note: This story was updated late Monday to include comments from Alaska State Troopers.)