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Wildlife troopers close investigation of Senate candidate's musk ox hunt

Amanda Coyne
Alaska Dispatch illustration

Capt. Burke Waldron, operations commander of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, said Friday that troopers have exhausted their leads into whether Alaska state Senate Bob Bell broke the law during a controversial 2010 hunt by illegally taking musk ox horns which, according to Bell, are carved and now hang on his dining room wall.

“We’ve not been able to establish that the condition of the permits were violated,” Waldron said.

Unless there’s further evidence, the case has “nowhere to go," Waldron said, and less than a week after it was opened, is now closed. 

Bell is running against Anchorage Democratic incumbent state Sen. Hollis French. Bell, who founded an engineering company that in 2011 had a more than $1 million contract with BP, has the support of Gov. Sean Parnell as well as the oil industry and its allies. Parnell has put much political capital into defeating French, who has fought against the governor's plan to lower oil taxes on the oil industry by as much as $2 billion a year.

Bell served on the Alaska Board of Game when he went on the musk ox hunt in 2010 with fellow board member Cliff Judkins and former and now disgraced state Director of Wildlife Conservation Corey Rossi. The hunt, which took place outside of Nome, is considered a “subsistence” hunt, which basically means that it’s a hunt for meat, not for a trophy. In order to keep it that way, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has regulations -- guided by the board -- on how the horns should be handled after the animals are shot.

Specifically, their trophy value has to be destroyed before the horns leave the area from which they are taken. “Destroyed,” according to Fish and Game, means that the horns must be cut off at eye level up to the tip by a game official or a designee prior to leaving the area. The hunter may keep the stubs, and the tips go to Fish and Game.

Alaska Dispatch published a story Sunday about the hunt, citing emails and interviews with Bell. In those emails and interviews, Bell said that on his dining room wall he had a full, uncut pair of horns that he got from the hunt.

In order to get information about the hunt, and to learn about the law, Alaska Dispatch talked to troopers and other officials, including a wildlife investigator, about the information it received from Bell. The Dispatch declined to provide troopers with the emails.

Bell said that after the hunt, he, Judkins and likely Rossi took the horns to an artist to get them carved. In an email earlier this year to Alaska Dispatch reporter Craig Medred, Bell wrote: "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."

In an interview with Alaska Dispatch, Bell said, “Cliff (Judkins) and I took our horns to her (the carver). We gave her specific instructions. And then I said, ‘Before you do that, check with Fish and Game and make sure that destroys the trophy value.’ She said she would do that.”

According to Bell, the carver told him she would have to cut the horns off the skull plate to destroy the trophy value. “I said fine, do that. Cut them off, but still carve them.” Bell recalled. “I wanted the horns carved, and I wanted the trophy value destroyed. If it would have been cut in five different pieces to destroy the trophy value, that would have been fine with me."

Bell later said he transferred the horns to the artist, and then bought carved horns about 10 months later. He said he doesn’t know they are the same horns as the ones belonging to the musk ox that he shot.

As was discussed in detail a year before at a 2009 Board of Game meeting Bell attended in Nome, neither carving the horns or cutting them from the skull plate destroys the horn’s trophy value.

According to transcripts of the meeting, Bell took issue with the law. “I just think this horn destruction idea is just a bad idea, no matter where we apply it,” he said. “I never have agreed with it. It’s the wrong way to manage. I don’t know what we’re accomplishing it by doing it,” he said.

Nome-based Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Tony Gorn was the one who gave the trio the permits to for the hunt. Either before or after the hunt, the idea of carving the horns, or making “artwork out of them” was discussed. He said the permits didn’t allow for that, and that they would have to “follow the hunt conditions.”

Waldron said that if troopers can establish that the horns left the unit prior to being cut below the eye level, it would be a violation of the permit conditions.

Waldron declined to go into the details of the investigation, including whether or not troopers interviewed Bell. He did say that they had interviewed a carver and others involved in the hunt.

It's unclear if the case ever made it to a district attorney. The wildlife crimes prosecutor who would have likely handled the case, Arne Soldwedel, said that he hadn't heard of the case. This week was Soldwedel's first one on the job. 

When contacted for comment, Nome-based Trooper Jay Sears, who last week was preparing to investigate, said that he has been told he isn’t allowed to talk to the media about the case.

Biologist Tony Gorn was told he couldn’t talk about the case.

Regional Fish and Game supervisor Steve Machida was told that he couldn’t talk about the case.

Retired Nome-based state fish and game biologist Charlie Lean said he’s “dumbstruck” by the news that troopers had halted the investigation. He didn't feel that he or his peers would have gotten the same treatment if they had been suspected of such a thing, he said.

Lean is vice chair of the Norton Sound Norton state fish and game advisory committee, which is meeting next week. “This will be a topic of discussion,” he said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com