The colorful star of the Alaska reality television show "Wild West Alaska," which promotes an Anchorage gun shop and the 49th-state's huntin'-fishin'-goldmining lifestyle, today finds himself in trouble with state wildlife authorities with their own reality TV show to promote -- "Alaska State Troopers.''
Wild West Guns owner Jim V. West has been charged with 17 hunting violations, including trespassing on Alaska Native lands while guiding a black bear hunt. His attorney has questioned whether troopers might have busted him to boost their TV ratings.
West is most famous in the world of guns and hunting for building a compact, two-piece, bear-stopping firearm: the $2,600 "Alaskan CoPilot." But his fame grew when the "Wild West Alaska" reality show began promoting his gun shop as the largest and most successful in the state.
The Discovery Channel, parent to show host Animal Planet, now touts the show as a chance to "step into a world where bears outnumber people and off-the-beaten path is the only direction to go."
Bear hunting at bait stations
West is a man familiar with life off-the-beaten path.
Along with running the gun shop just off the Seward Highway near the southern edge of Midtown Anchorage, he also owns the Klutina Lodge in Copper Center, a small community located between miles 101 and 105 of the Richardson Highway that goes from Fairbanks to Valdez. A historic community along one of the state's oldest trails, Copper Center is place where the winters are long and cold -- and summers are smoldering.
Alaska State Troopers allege West's illegal hunting operations were based out of his lodge near the famous Copper River.
In 2011, authorities say, a Glennallen-based Alaska State Wildlife Trooper was tipped that West might be hunting bear at bait stations located on private lands owned by Ahtna Inc., one of the 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, said troopers' spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. That triggered an investigation, she said.
Begun by troopers in Glennallen, the investigation soon grew to include the wildlife troopers' investigative unit in Anchorage and the National Park Service, according to a trooper press release. The state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals in the Office of the Attorney General is now handling the case.
The investigation led to illegal acts dating back to 2009, according to troopers.
Troopers allege that West, while working as a big game guide that year, unlawfully guided a hunt on federal lands within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. It is legal to hunt in the preserve portion of the 13.2-million-acre federal reserve bigger than the nation of Switzerland, but authorities say West lacked the necessary concession permit to guide hunts there.
'A significant dispute'
Then in 2011, and again in 2012, they charged that he trespassed on the Native-owned lands within the Cooper River Valley while guiding black bear hunters. West was at one of his registered bear bait sites, illegally placed on private lands, when a client killed a black bear, according to authorities. That is a violation of state guiding statutes, as is the failure to remove bear bait stations at the end of the hunting season. Authorities claim West failed to do that.
West attorney Brent Cole, an Anchorage lawyer who specializes in wildlife cases, refused to discuss the specifics of the charges against his client, but said that West "without question" denies his bear-bait sites were located on Native lands.
"There's a significant dispute about that issue," Cole said, "and it's going to be interesting to see the state reconcile some of its own positions on "the location of the sites.
West faces a total of 17 charges in connection with various bear hunts. The charges were filed Thursday in Glennallen District Court. They include accusations of hunting on private land, taking game with a client in the field and making false statements on a bear-sealing certificate.
All the charges are misdemeanors. Many carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail. Fines can go up to $30,000 on some counts, but it is virtually unheard of for anyone to get hit with maximum penalties in an illegal hunting case in Alaska.
Cessna 185 seized
Worse than the threat of fines and jail might be the seizure of West's Cessna 185 single-engine airplane. Most such planes are worth upwards of $100,000, and Cole said the seizure of West's plane happened in August, just days before he planned to use the aircraft for hunting and his TV show.
Since the state confiscated the plane, Cole and his client have argued the specifics of the search warrant used to take the Cessna. They question the legality of the information troopers used to obtain the warrant. Cole also questions the timing of the seizure.
"We think it's more than a coincidence that Mr. West's show competes with the state's TV show," the attorney said. "The shows compete for viewers."
The trooper show airs on the National Geographic channel.
Busting the star of a rival, Alaska reality TV show could conceivably be good for the ratings of Alaska State Troopers. But then again, the bust might also be good for "Wild West," which often promotes the somewhat-rebel lifestyles of its stars.
Arraignment is set for December 3 in Glennallen.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Alaska Dispatch reporter Craig Medred contributed to this report.