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The spectacular rise of Alaska wildlife manager Corey Rossi

Craig Medred

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part story. Read Part II: How investigators busted Alaska wildlife manager Corey Rossi 

When Alaska State Troopers showed up at the door of Kenai big-game guide Joe Dilley in December wanting to ask him questions about possible outlaw hunting done by the state's wildlife director, Dilley had no idea who they were talking about. Dilley doesn't follow state politics closely. If he did, he would immediately have recognized the name of Corey Rossi. Rossi is a controversial figure in the north, a big proponent of what was years ago labeled "intensive management.''

Intensive management is built around the idea of maximizing populations of moose, caribou and deer in Arctic and sub-Arctic environments. The main way to do that -- other than through the use of habitat-modifying tools like fire, which people tend to dislike because it burns down cabins -- is to kill predators: Wolves, black bears and, in the biggest Alaska wildlife controversy of the moment, grizzly bears. Grizzlies are an endangered or threatened species in the few others states and Canadian provinces where the animal survives.

But it wasn't just Rossi's advocacy for predator control, as opponents of intensive management prefer to call the activity, that made him controversial. Nor was it involvement with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a collection of high-rollers who spun away from established hunting and conservation groups with reservations about intensive management.

No, what really set Rossi apart was how he landed the high-profile job as director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the once prestigious Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Rossi got that job not because of what he knew, but who he knew: Chuck and Sally Heath, the parents of Sarah Palin. Once Alaska's most-popular governor, Palin became one of the nation's most controversial candidates for vice president. That, however, didn't happen until after she was elected governor with a vow to clean up government at a time when the state was in midst of scandal. Bill Allen, the head of the oilfield service company VECO, had been caught trying to manipulate state legislators in all sorts of ways to encourage them to hold down oil taxes. Palin promised to put an end to such shenanigans and come down hard on the oil companies, which she did.

Proud, rich history

Palin also brought into government one of the most crony-laden administrations in state history. Rossi, a man with neither a college degree nor any wildlife management experience, was one of those cronies. Despite his weak resume, Sally Heath lobbied her daughter to have family friend Rossi named Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game. Sally emailed Sarah and the new governor's staff that "Corey Rossi would be hard to beat. Some things to think about. The people that are saying it's (Fish and Game) too big for Rossi to manage are the very same people who said the same thing about you ..."

Rossi was never going to get the commissioner's job, however. Even as the decade drew toward a close, the state agency remained a prestigious though fading organization. It would be years before anyone lacking a strong background in fish and wildlife management would be named to run it. As late as five years ago, it was an agency still proud of its rich history, an agency not far removed from the time when it was one of the most respected fish and wildlife management organizations in the world. In its heyday, what was formerly known as the Fish and Game's "Game Division" (now the Division of Wildlife Conservation) was “the" place where almost anyone seriously interested in predator/prey relationships in northern ecosystems wanted to work. For years, much of the leading research on wolves and grizzly bears was done by the agency.

Rolf Peterson, the Robbins Chair at Michigan Technological University and a man famous for his long-running studies of wolves and moose in Isle Royale National Park, first made his mark with a somewhat controversial study of Kenai Peninsula wolves in conjunction with state Fish and Game biologists. The study indicated that it would be necessary to kill a lot of wolves -- more than 40 percent of the population each year -- to make predator control effective in boosting moose populations.

At the time, Fish and Game was headed by Commissioner Ron Skoog, who had a Ph.D in wildlife management. Skoog wrote a highly respected thesis on Alaska caribou herds. That Rossi, a one-time federal predator control agent with little education in the field of wildlife management, would end up heading the Division of Wildlife Conservation one day would have been incomprehensible during the late 1970s and early 1980s. And the idea he would get the commissioner's job remained incomprehensible in 2008 -- even if he had employed Palin's parents off-and-on for more than a decade as part-time helpers with federal rodent control programs.

Read Part II: How investigators busted Alaska wildlife manager Corey Rossi 

However, Palin found a place for Rossi after she took over the governor's mansion and began to fill state government jobs with friends and friends of friends. Palin brought Rossi into the administration as an assistant to the commissioner of Fish and Game charged with advocating for "abundance management," another friendly label for predator control. Rossi, who'd made a career out of killing rats and foxes in the Pribilof and Aleutian islands for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost immediately began working the system.

He'd already used his federal job to leverage a private business -- Great Northern Safari Co. -- that he ran in the Pribilofs. Rossi promoted Great Northern as "the world’s premier free-range reindeer hunt ... GNSC has been producing some of the largest antlers on earth." He used the company to build contacts with wealthy hunters in organizations like Safari Club International and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the Alaska Chapter of which Rossi helped found. His connections to politically active hunters, some with big money, helped to boost his influence. In 2010, Gov. Sean Parnell -- Palin's successor -- named Rossi Wildlife Division director despite objections from environmentalists, professional wildlife biologists, and a goodly part of the Wildlife Division staff.

Rossi's supporters, of which there were many in Alaska, dismissed critics as liberals, closet environmentalists or ignorant city folk. There were more than a few of the latter. The United States today -- including Alaska -- is now populated with urbanites holding a different view of the wilderness than the people who live in it. Amid the noise and congestion of city life, it is easy to fall victim to the belief that wilderness is an Eden that shouldn't be disturbed. In reality, it is a world with simple rules: kill or be killed. Rossi, the federal predator killer, understood those rules, and that made him popular with a key segment of the Alaska population -- hunters, fishermen and guides.

But this was not his connection to the guide Dilley, a man engaged in the professional business of killing. Though this profession is no longer as prestigious as it was when Ernest Hemingway penned the popular short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" in 1936, it remains a profession of great pride for some men.

It's only paperwork

Becoming a registered big-game guide in Alaska is not easy.

Guiding is one of the few professions left in the world where an apprenticeship is required. The apprenticeship in Alaska, by law, lasts at least three years, but it's not that simple. Guides are licensed by the state, and the prime reason Alaska’s Big Game Commercial Services Board exists is to protect jobs. Dominated by guides, the board tries to hold down the number of new guides to maintain profit margins for old guides. The board has tried to do to guiding what limited entry did to the commercial fishing business in the 49th state – limit competition between the people who harvest the resource.

The big difference between the commercial fishing business and the guiding business is that a wannabe commercial fishermen can always buy in if he or she has enough cash. Limited entry permits are bought and sold regularly. With a limited-entry permit in hand, anyone can get a commercial fishing license. It's harder on the wildlife side. The requirements are pretty simple: a claim of two years or more experience hunting big game in Alaska, a first-aid card, and recommendation from a registered guide/outfitter. But after you get the assistant guide license, you still need someone to front your hunts until the Guide Board allows you to become a fully registered guide. Assistant guides cannot book clients.

In 2008, Rossi was an assistant guide when -- according to state charging documents  -- he illegally arranged a bear hunt for three non-residents: David Reis, a trucking executive from Colorado; Duane Stroupe, a wealthy, elderly businessman, avid hunter and Safari Club International member from Oregon in the record books for shooting the second largest South American red deer ever; and Robert "Bruce" Hubbard, a partner in Utah-based Triple H Hunting, which claims "extensive leases on private property in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada (that) offer some of the best hunting available in the western United States for elk, deer, Shiris moose, buffalo, mountain goat, three species of sheep, mountain lion, and bear.”

Reis did not return a message left on a voice recorder at his office. An employee of Stroupe's company -- Stroupe Family Farm -- politely took a message and promised to have Duane return a call; he did not. Hubbard hung up the phone when a reporter identified himself. A follow-up call got this: "If you want to discuss anything with me, you can go through my lawyers. That's all I've got to say. Don't call back." Hubbard then hung up once again before identifying his lawyer. An attempt to reach Craig Hubbard, another principle with Triple H, to find out the name of the lawyer for the company proved futile.

In fairness to Hubbard, many in the hunting community have a tendency to view journalists with suspicion, given the significant number who bill themselves as "environmental reporters" and see a "sky-is-falling" scenario in most stories.

Hubbard would be viewed, in the eyes of some of them, as not so much a bear "hunter," as a bear "murderer." State court documents, after all, say he shot two bears in cold blood after the animals were lured to a bait station. The shootings happened near Shirleyville on the north side of Cook Inlet across from Anchorage in 2008, just months before Palin hired Rossi. Hubbard had a tag to shoot only one bear. He was at the time being guided by Rossi. So were Stroupe and Reis, who each shot a bear.

They appear to have had a pleasant hunt at the time. Four years later, though, it would turn ugly for at least one of them: Corey Rossi. It has already cost him his job, and the legal process is just beginning.

This is the first of a two-part story. Read Part II: How investigators busted Alaska wildlife manager Corey Rossi 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com