If Alaska state Senate candidate Bob Bell can be believed, he has illegal musk ox horns in his possession. Alaska State Troopers don't seem to care. Should anyone else? The 69-year-old Bell is, after all, a supporter of the troopers' boss, Gov. Sean Parnell, and Bell is a nice enough, elderly gentleman. He's lefty enough that he sold his business to his employees -- though he remains the CEO, sets his own salary and can’t be fired -- and righty enough that he made his money the old-fashioned way, by working for it, albeit much of it came courtesy of Big Oil. He is sometimes startlingly honest, too.
I learned of his illegal horns in one of several emails he sent early this year. The emails began with a complaint on a story about disgraced Alaska Director of Wildlife Conservation Corey Rossi, the poacher.
Bell, a one-time member of the state Board of Game, played a small part in the Rossi story. Bell was along when Rossi tried to pressure one of his employees, Nome-based state wildlife biologist Tony Gorn, into bending a law requiring the destruction of musk ox horns' trophy value if an animal is killed in a Seward Peninsula subsistence hunt.
Subsistence hunts are what would generally be called "meat hunts,'' as opposed to trophy hunts. Rossi wanted to take a trophy home. The regulations for the permit hunt for which he, Bell and Game Board Chairman Cliff Judkins signed up, however, specifically stated the horns' trophy value was to be destroyed. The intent was to make sure a meat hunt intended primarily for rural residents in and near Nome, population 3,700, didn't become a de facto trophy hunt for rich guys from the big city of Anchorage, 550 miles to the southeast.
Musk ox are prehistoric relics some hunters now consider major trophies. Rossi and Judkins appear to be among those hunters. Bell said he just wanted some meat. He didn't, however, appreciate the fact that Rossi and Judkins were called out after the hunt.
"I just read your article on our musk ox hunt,'' his first email began. “I have not seen an example of tabloid journalism quite so egregious -- if you don’t know what this word means you can look it up -- in quite some time. The premise of your muck-raking diatribe is that we did everything legal, but (area biologist) Tony Gorn was intimidated by our presence."
It went on to claim creation of "this whole story out of whole cloth due to your lack of journalistic ability and ethics. I would suggest journalism 101 at UAA might be a good move for you."
Partial to plain speakers
Some colleagues who've seen the email think it rude. I don't. I'm partial to plain speakers. Don't beat around the bush. Be honest. Say what you think. People need to vent. And the substance of Bell's email was more interesting than the personal attack.
"For your enlightenment, we never asked Tony to 'waive' the horn destruction requirement,'' he wrote. "In fact, I distinctly recall being very clear that because of our positions with Fish and Game, we had to make sure we did everything right. Bottom line is we followed the law and there was no undue pressure on Tony (Gorn).''
I shot back a reply saying, in part, "save me any holier-than-thou nonsense about positions anywhere and making sure to do 'everything right.' Wink-wink. You might sell that line of garbage to some wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter, but I've been at this way too long. Something happened in Nome. It made Tony uncomfortable. That's not supposed to happen in the 'everything right' world. Now, I guess Tony could have lied to me, but I see no motive for him to do so. Neither do I see any reason for (his boss Pat) Valkenberg to lie about any of this.''
More emails followed. There were, according to my count, seven in all. In the third, Bell revealed this:
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 (an 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. In regard to Cliff’s attempt to get horn destruction stopped, I can tell you Cliff, Ted (Spraker of the Game Board) and I all advocated to have it removed from all subsistence hunts. I thought it was a stupid requirement when I first came on the board and still do.
I appreciated Bell's honesty there, and our exchange ended with friendlier messages. That was in January. The emails sat in my computer, as many others do, for months. I didn't write anything more about Rossi or the hunt or even think about it until Bell called and left a message for me to call him back in August. I called.
"I hate to bring up an unpleasant subject,'' he said, "but we need to talk about musk ox....Apparently the thing is going to become a political issue.'' His Republican primary opponent, he said, had taken to TV to accuse him of trying "to smuggle musk ox horns out of Nome. What she's saying is simply not true. I didn't try to smuggle anything anywhere.''
Worrying too much?
I watched a long, boring television interview where Liz Vazquez, a lawyer, beat up on Bell a bit, but she never used the word "smuggle'' or "smuggled'' or anything of the sort. She was careful not to accuse Bell of anything illegal.
I had to call Bell back and tell him there didn't appear to be a story in her accusations. I added that he was probably worrying too much anyway. The interview was so long and boring, I said, no one was going to pay attention to it. Who knows whether that was the case, but Bell beat Vazquez handily in the primary with Democrat incumbent Sen. Hollis French waiting in the wings. French appeared to be getting ready to bring up the musk ox hunt, too. He emailed me asking where he could find the story about it. I sent him a link.
That was in August, and Bell's musk ox was again relegated to my dust heap. The story then was that there was no story.
That changed a couple months later when Dispatch reporter Amanda Coyne suggested revisiting the issue. I told her I doubted Bell had done anything technically wrong but recommended she go ask Bell about the story to put it to rest. She called Bell. He confessed to having carved horns, hanging on his dining room wall, but denied they were illegal. Coyne and I talked about what are and aren't legal horns.
I confess to knowing little about that. Musk ox are one of the few Alaska animals I've never shot. I don't have the money to fly to Nome to hunt them. We had to look up the regulations. They say the horns must be destroyed by "ADF&G or an authorized agent'' before anything is removed from the game management unit. As part of the destruction, the rules say, the "distal portion'' of the horn is to be left with Fish and Game.
I confess, I had to look up what was meant by "distal portion,'' too. The distal portion is the part of a horn farthest from the horns point of attachment. Thus, for a musk ox horn, which attaches to the skull, the distal portion would be the opposite end, or what appears on a musk ox as the upturned tip.
Coyne and I discussed what Bell could legally possess. Neither of us was exactly sure. I suggested she ask Bell if she could take photograph of the horns to get the issue resolved. She asked Bell. Bell agreed, but balked when she went to make arrangements for an actual photo.
He told her he thought he was being "set up.'' He wasn't. I sent him an email telling him that and suggesting the way to make this story go away was to let Coyne take the photo. No illegal horn, no story. Bell never answered that email, and he stopped communicating with Coyne as well. All communications started going through an intermediary.
Key phrase: 'the tips'
Coyne asked me what I thought about all of it. That was when I dug out the old emails, and there it was -- the smoking gun in Bell's own words:
"In my case, I gave the horns to (the artist) 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."
The key phrase there is "the tips.'' The tips are supposed to be cut off the horn, and the tips are supposed to stay with Fish and Game in Nome. It is illegal for Bell to have whole horns with tips attached from his hunt near Nome -- if this is, in fact, what he has.
He later changed his horn story in the communications with Coyne through the intermediary. His new position became that he gave the horns to the artist, and bought some horns from the artist, and he's not sure if the horns he got are his or not. That story sounds very convenient, but then his story has been something of shape-shifter from the start.
Sometimes he remembered little of what went on at Fish and Game in Nome: "I don’t recall any discussion in regard to the horns other than what was necessary to consider the trophy value destroyed."
Other times he remembered a fair bit: "I didn’t see any indication from Tony that he was apprehensive in any way when I was in his office. If he was, it was unavoidable because there was no indication from him for us to react to."
In one email, the story was: "We may have gone back to Tony’s office after the hunt, but I don’t specifically remember doing that." In another, it was: "After the hunt that we talked to Tony about having the horns cut off the skull and carved into art pieces."
Clearly, Bell has trouble keeping his stories straight.
Does anyone care? Is it, for that matter, really the responsibility of elected or appointed officials to explain when they are caught bending or breaking the law?
Certainly that is going to discourage some people from running for office, isn't it? Bell understands that, it's obvious. One of the last things he said to me in our last phone conversation was this:
"I don't know why I get into this shit. I got talked into it.''
I can sympathize with that, but I'm really wondering now who talked him into running for office. What if one of the talkers was Gov. Sean Parnell, the boss of the Alaska State Troopers? Might that be why troopers dropped the investigation? Who knows? Troopers seldom answer questions in this state. They often forget they work for the people of Alaska. They'd rather be reality TV celebrities these days.
And obviously, someone decided that charging over to Bell's house to serve a search warrant to see his musk-ox horns wouldn't make for a good episode of Alaska State Troopers. It's much better television to get out your assault rifle and go charging into the home of some poor, ignorant misfit in the Susitna Valley.
The author’s views are his own and not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com