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Senate candidate shows trophy horns purchased after musk ox hunt

Craig Medred
Photo courtesy: KTVA

Alaska Senate candidate Bob Bell's Horngate went visual on Thursday when Anchorage television station KTVA revealed photographs of the musk ox horns Bell has in his Anchorage home. The photos show the apparently uncut horns of a Seward Peninsula musk ox. Bell killed a musk ox there in 2010.

The animal was shot legally under the terms of a subsistence hunting permit that also stipulated "trophy destruction of horns by Nome ADF&G or authorized agent is required for all horns prior to being removed from Unit 22. During normal business hours, ADF&G must cut horns at or above the eye and retain the distal portion of the horn."

Bell's horns have not been destroyed as required by the law.

Reached by telephone in Nome Thursday afternoon, Charlie Lean, a former wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and now vice-chairman of the state Board of Game's Nome Fish and Game Advisory Committee, was not happy. The advisory committee met Wednesday night, he said, and at that meeting discussed Bell's musk-ox hunt.

"We thought that it was an amazing abuse of power,'' Lean said. Bell was at the time of the musk-ox hunt a member of the Board of Game.

Upon viewing the online photos of Bell's horns, all Lean could add was "that's a clear violation. The trophy value was not destroyed as in the regulations. ... It states unequivocally" what is supposed to be done with the horns.

A Fish and Game official who asked not to be named -- state wildlife biologists have been ordered by superiors not to talk about Bell's hunt -- agreed the horns pictured in the KTVA photograph are exactly the kind of horns that are not to be removed from the unit. They do not appear to have been cut. If they were cut, they were carefully glued back together. But, even if that was the case, the "distal portion'' -- the pointy tip part -- was not left with Fish and Game in Nome as the permit stipulates.

Officially, Alaska Division of Wildlife Director Doug Vincent-Lange tried to push an answer as to the legality of the horns onto the Alaska State Troopers. He said he was unable to look at the KTVA photograph because the state has blocked access to Facebook, where the photos were first published. Vincent-Lange did, however, agree to look at the photo when he got home from work and at least pass official judgment on whether the horns were of a type that could be legally removed from the Nome area after a musk ox hunt there.

Alaska State Troopers were not returning phone calls. Bill McAllister, the KTVA reporter who convinced Bell to allow photographs of the horns, said he also was getting no response from troopers. The troopers work for Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. Bell is running for an Anchorage Senate seat as a Republican and has backed Parnell's plans to cut oil taxes.

McAllister said Bell contends he does not know if the horns now in his possession came from the musk ox he killed in 2010. Bell told both McAllister and Alaska Dispatch reporter Amanda Coyne that after his hunt, he left his horns with a Nome artist. He later paid the artist for some horns on which she had done art. She sent Bell those horns. He said he now doesn't know if the horns she sent are his.

Unclear in that argument is Bell's legal obligation to abide by the permit standards on horns' destruction. Lean said the regulations make it clear that it is the responsibility of a subsistence musk-ox hunter to make sure the horns are destroyed. Giving them to an artist intact, which is what Bell has said he did, does not constitute destruction.

Troopers last week said they had investigated Horngate and closed the case without charging Bell, but they refused to talk about the specifics. Troopers on a regular basis charge ordinary hunters for failing to comply with the simplest of permit hunt stipulations. 

Just days ago, 32-year-old Tim Thomas from Eagle River was cited for failing to simply return a permit on time. "Investigation revealed Thomas failed to turn in his hunting permit in the allotted time frame given by ADF&G," a statement said. "Thomas was issued a bailable citation for the Anchorage court in the amount of $110."

Coyne had asked Bell to allow photographs of the horns when her investigation into Horngate began weeks ago. Her reporting followed criticisms leveled against Bell by Liz Vazquez, a conservative candidate who challenged Bell in the Republican primary for the West Anchorage Senate seat. Vazquez questioned Bell's ethics.

Bell subsequently attacked her for making up claims he had smuggled illegal horns out of Nome, though she never accused him of smuggling anything out of Nome. Dispatch later tried to determine just how exactly Bell came to have in his home the horns eventually photographed by KTVA. 

Bell at first agreed to allow Alaska Dispatch to take pictures of the horns and then balked. Coyne reported on Horngate, sans photos, on Oct. 21. The story led to a quickly opened and quickly closed trooper investigation after which Capt. Burke Waldron said, “We’ve not been able to establish that the condition of the permits were violated." Waldron wouldn't talk about the details. 

A Nome hunter familiar with the musk ox hunts in 2010 said they were quite contentious. Some hunters, he said, spent a lot of money to fly to Nome to hunt musk ox and were angry they couldn't take the horns home.

"Some smuggled the heads out of town later," he said. "I heard all kinds of stories. Anyway, Bell was here hunting with a guide that was trying to sway the game board to do away with cutting the tips off the horns and destroying the value. ... This guide wanted to use these two hunts, Bell's (and another), especially as an example to get rid of the subsistence hunt and open it up to a hunt for everyone."

The horn destruction requirement was intended to keep trophy hunters out of Nome, and encourage meat hunts for the musk ox, a prehistoric animal once extinct in the 49th state but later reintroduced. Bell has said from the beginning he was on a meat hunt, but did want a souvenir.

"It was my intent to shoot a young bull or a cow for the more tender meat and I believe that was also Cliff (Judkins') intent, so the horn issue was somewhat moot at that time," he said in a January email. "(Corey) Rossi was going to shoot a big bull so we could get some pictures. It was after the hunt that we talked to Tony (Gorn) about having the horns cut off the skull and carved into art pieces. There was no discussion about giving them to Karen (the artist) and then buying them back. In my case I gave the horns to her and told her what I wanted done, a sourdough face on one horn and an Eskimo face on the other with a seal and a bird on the tips. Everyone agreed this would destroy the 'trophy value' of the horns."

Tony Gorn, the Nome-area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, later said he did not agree to any such thing, noting that what Bell, Judkins and Rossi wanted to do was clearly illegal. Judkins was at the time the chairman of the Alaska Board of Game, the entity charged with the legal responsibility for overseeing the management of Alaska wildlife. Bell was a member of the board. Rossi was the Director of the state Division of Wildlife, and thus Gorn's supervisor. Rossi is now a convicted poacher. Issues were raised at the time of the musk ox hunt as to whether he'd tried to use his position to pressure Gorn into allowing illegal activities; Gorn said he clearly got the impression that is what Rossi, Judkins and Bell were trying to do.

Bell has denied ever trying to use his influence to sway Gorn on the horn issue. Bell is not talking to Dispatch. He has accused the website of launching an attack on him. He told McAllister he refused to let Coyne take photographs of the horns because "he doesn't believe" she's fair-minded. Rod Arno, the director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state's leading hunting organization, has in the past complimented Coyne on trying hard to be fair on hunting issues.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com