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Walrus tusk poachers on Round Island preserve charged by feds

Jill Burke
Photo courtesy USGS

What began as a curious poaching incident last May on a remote Alaska island game sanctuary has evolved from a state-level investigation into a full-blown federal case, with two Alaska Native hunters accused in the wasteful killing and facing a quartet of federal charges.

One Monday in early May, 2011, Sixty Arkanakyak and Jessie Arnariak decided to motor their way from the village of Togiak 30 miles across Togiak Bay, located north of the pristine and world-class fishing waters of Bristol Bay. Their destination was Round Island, a massive summer haul out for male Pacific walrus who use the rocky beaches as resting spots between food binges. What the men did next – slaughtering a walrus for nothing more than its tusks and injuring other massive mammals in a spray of bullets – could land them in jail for a decade.

On Thursday, Arkanakyak told a federal judge during his arraignment that he was innocent, pleading not guilty to four charges: three misdemeanors related to an illegal, wasteful kill of a walrus and the removal of its tusks, and one felony for being a convicted felon in possession of firearms. Arnariak faces identical charges, stemming from an indictment against both men handed up in mid-December. The misdemeanors – violations of the Lacey Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act – carry a possible jail term of up to one year. The weapons charge has a maximum sentence of 10 years. According to prosecutors, Arkanakyak has a previous felony conviction for theft; while Arnariak has a prior assault conviction.

Eroding tribe's rights

Deeply disappointed in and angered by the mens' behavior, Togiak's village council has aligned itself with the prosecutors. Reached by phone at his village office, Council President Frank Logusak says he personally told the men if it ever happens again he'd encourage law enforcement “to put them in jail and throw the key away.” He'd also contemplated how he could take their boat, motor and guns away.

He said he has personally worked long and hard to restore his people’s traditional hunting rights to the walrus of Round Island, and he worries that abuses similar to what Arkanakyak and Arnariak are accused of doing could erode the tribe's rights.

There also seems to be community ire at the foolishness and recklessness of the poaching incident, rooted in not in the practice of culture, tradition or the quest for food, but in grabbing the valuable ivory for trade and personal gain unrelated to feeding their families or use in artwork, according to Jonathan Forsling, the council's tribal administrator. Even had they used the tusks for personal use or for crafts, the hunt was out of season, in violation of the negotiated terms the tribe had come to with sanctuary regulators.

Not subsistence

“In no way, shape or form was this subsistence,” said Forsling, referring to the type of legitimate hunting done for personal and traditional use and daily survival. “This kind of behavior undermines everything we stand for and everything we fought for,” he said.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the Pacific Walrus should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, citing receding sea ice, warming oceans and increased ocean acidification. Because other species have more urgent priority, walrus are for now only considered a “candidate species.”

It's not the killing of the walrus that has the men -- Native Alaskan hunters -- in trouble with the law. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically protects the hunting privileges of Alaska Natives. But they are required to take the walrus meat for food. Arnariak and Arkanakyak are accused of taking only the animal's highly valuable ivory tusks. That they drifted into state sanctuary waters out of season and without the required permits added to the slew of state charges lodged against them.

Indigenous hunters are the only Alaskans allowed to hunt and kill marine mammals, but some standards apply to all Alaska hunters. State law requires the meat of a killed animal be salvaged and it limits hunters to approved harvest times.

At Round Island, the walrus hunt for qualifying Native villagers in the region takes place in autumn. Hunters collectively are allowed to take 20 animals, but they must have permits to enter
the sanctuary and participate in the hunt.

The Round Island State Game Sanctuary is home to one of the largest congregations of Pacific walrus in North America. While counts fluctuate daily, their numbers have been known to climb as high as 14,000 at one time. A 2006 surveyed estimated 129,000 walrus in Alaska overall, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has said the count could actually be as low as 55,000 animals or as high as 507,000 animals.

Will tourism suffer?

The Round Island haul-out phenomenon attracts adventurous tourists willing to endure a 30-mile boat ride lasting up to three hours just to visit. For the privilege, these same tourists will spend as much as $2,100 each for a two-day tour complete with a stay at a Togiak lodge. Forsling wonders if Round Island tourism will suffer due to the rogue poachers’ actions.

Round Island also attracts researchers, who were caught by surprise when Arkanakyak and Arnariak showed up that spring day. Researchers stationed on the island apparently witnessed the events, and took pictures and video of the men as they carried out the illegal hunt. Arkanakyak and Arnariak are accused of pulling up to a hauled out group of sanctuary walrus and opening fire at close range.

The indictment offers a detailed account of the killing: The men, armed with 12-gauge shotguns, came up on a group of walrus and opened fire, wounded at least five animals. When the herd stampeded, four of the wounded animals slipped into the water, while Arkanayak and and Arnariak proceeded to kill a fifth that remained on the beach. After taking the tusks, they left the body to rot on the beach.

The federal charges are on top of state charges, in which the men, along with being in trouble for hunting illegally, were also accused of violating liquor laws by bringing liquor into a community that prohibits alcohol. Arnariak was accused of driving the boat drunk and accessing the sanctuary by boat without a permit; Arkanakyak, was also accused with weapons misconduct. Both men ended up pleading guilty to the state charges and serving jail time for the crimes.

Arkanakyak's federal trial is scheduled to take place in February. Arnariak has yet to be arraigned.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com