Correction: This story was corrected on April 23 to reflect that definition of "wounded'' is codified in state law, even if not always available in publicly distributed hunting regulations.
Rocker turned political-talker Ted Nugent shot a bear. The shooting broke a strange and unusual Alaska law. It became a federal case. Nugent hired a lawyer who was the Alaska attorney general for the briefest of periods. The two of them might well have been able to win in court. But instead they negotiated a deal for Nugent to plead guilty to the federal crime of transporting the hide of an illegally killed bear. He has yet to be sentenced, but in the plea with the government, he agreed to pay a fine of $10,000 to the federal treasury.
What's going on here, and where to begin?
The facts themselves are relatively simple.
Three years ago this May, the then-60-year-old Nugent went on a black bear hunt in Southeast Alaska. The hunt was filmed for a television show Nugent hosts, titled "Ted Nugent Spirit of the Wild." Nugent sat at a bait station and waited for a bear to show up. One did. Nugent, a big fan of archery, shot an arrow at the bear. The arrow may or may not have hit the bear. It clearly did not kill the bear. The bear ran off. As far as is known, it survived.
Bears are tough animals. They regularly rip large chunks of flesh out of each other when fighting over mates or just fighting. They almost always survive. There is no evidence, nor any claim made by anyone, that the bear in question here was mortally wounded. In the version of this story told by Nugent attorney Wayne Anthony Ross -- perhaps known better by the acronym WAR -- the bear escaped its encounter with Nugent bloodied but otherwise unharmed.
Four days later, another bear was not so lucky. Nugent shot it, and killed it.
In most of Alaska, everything that happened would have been part of a pretty normal hunt. Hunters regularly miss animals. Animals are sometimes wounded instead of killed. Those that are seriously wounded usually don't go far. They are tracked down and dispatched. Those with minor injuries invariably escape, heal and wait for something else to kill them -- bears, wolves, avalanches, starvation. Suffice to say, it's rare for any wild animal in Alaska to die of old age. They live hard lives. It's the fight-for-survival thing.
The first bear at which Nugent shot was probably happy to get out of the situation alive. It was unfortunately unavailable for an interview where it could explain the nature of its injuries.
Finer points of the law
After the 2009 hunt, one bear that encountered Nugent went back into the forest to recuperate, and another went home with Nugent as a hide. This is where the hunt would normally have ended, but not this one. For this hunt was just the beginning of the story.
Nugent, it seems, had broken the law. Ross claims his client did not know this. That claim is plausible. The law Nugent broke is one of which even most Alaska hunters appear unaware. It is even a little difficult to find in the middle of page 16 of the state hunting regulation booklet. There is a highlighted section above it outlining the rules for the "Emergency Taking of Game In Defense of Life or Property," and a highlighted section to the right below it detailing requirements for sealing hides before shipping them.
In between these highlighted sections is a section on "Bag Limit," which a lot of hunters are likely to skip past because any who have been hunting long knows the meaning of "bag limit." It's the number of animals a hunter is allowed to harvest, which the state regulation booklet underlines in one sentence beneath the "Bag limit" headline. Seven paragraphs follow that. Most of them focus on explaining bag limits versus Game Management Units in Alaska, a slightly complicated subject.
The state has more than 20 of these Units. Many of them have different bag limits for the same species of wildlife. The regulations explain how if, for instance, you shoot the limit of one black bear in GMU 6, you can go to GMU 9 and shoot two more because the limit in GMU 9 is three bears a year. But if you shoot a bear in GMU 9, you can't go to GMU 6 and shoot a bear because you've already reached the one-bear limit for that unit. Most of the bag limit section of the handbook deals with these sorts of distinctions, but the second to last paragraph also adds this:
"Animals disturbed while hunting do not count against your bag limit; however, a person who has wounded game should make every reasonable effort to retrieve and salvage that game. However, bears wounded in Units 1-5, 8 and elk wounded in Unit 8 do count as your bag limit."
"Wounded" is nowhere defined in the "2011-2012 Alaska Hunting Regulations" available to the public, although Ross said it is defined in the 2010-11 booklet. A copy of the 2009-2010 booklet, which is what a hunter in Nugent's situation would have referenced, was not readily available. But whether the arcane standard unique to a small part of Alaska hunting is in there doesn't really matter anyway, because as state officials have in the past pointed out, hunters are responsible for knowing the law whether it is summarized in the publicly available booklet or not. And the regulations in this case are in the Alaska Administrative Code, a document best found in the law library. The regulations say this:
"In Units 1 - 5 and Unit 8, a black or brown (grizzly) bear wounded by a person counts against that person's bag limit for the regulatory year in which the bear is taken. However, in Units 1 - 5 and Unit 8, a brown bear wounded by a person does not count against that person's one bear every four regulatory years bag limit established in 5 AAC 92.132.
"In this subsection, 'wounded' means there is sign of blood or other sign that the animal has been hit by a hunting projectile."
Whether the wording of the regulation tracks the intent of the Alaska Board of Game, the state agency that sets the regulations, is unclear. The board's intention when it dealt with the issue was to minimize what is commonly called "wounding loss.'' The board wanted hunters to give up the hunt if it appeared a bear might have been injured badly enough that it likely died even if it wasn't found. That requires hunters to act ethically and responsibly and scour the forest carefully for spoor after shooting at any animal that then runs off. The regulation, as written, encourages them to do the opposite and simply conclude that they missed the animal that runs away after being shot at.
Nugent, who has some history of hunting violations elsewhere, did act as the state Board would hope in this case. He went to investigate what had happened after he loosed his arrow. He found the arrow, according to his attorney, and a little blood, but no indication of any serious injury to the bear.
The "Nuge" stays mum
Nugent, it is worth noting here, has not been charged by the state of Alaska in relation to his hunt. He has also not said much about the hunt.
The "Nuge," who likes to make noise both with rock-and-roll and otherwise, has, in fact, been strangely quiet about all of this. Ross has done the talking, and even Nugent's website offers nothing of his version of why he is in the news all over the country for, as the Anchorage newspaper put it, an "illegal Alaska bear kill." Ross has questioned that claim. He believes his client killed only one bear, and the limit in the state of Alaska is one bear. Ross has called the wounding law "crazy.'' Along with being a lawyer, Ross is a licensed assistant big-game guide Alaska. "Even me, an assistant guide, was not aware of this law, and neither was Ted,'' Ross said Monday in defense of his client.
Nugent himself is keeping quiet. His always active website has a report on his appearance at the convention of the National Rifle Association, which got him in a bit of lukewarm water with the U.S. Secret Service. But there's not even a hint of any issue with the courts in Alaska or his feelings on being classified as some sort of poacher by federal officials. And the Nuge, despite his most-manly manliness, is usually pretty active in making his feelings known.
Ross, meanwhile, is saying Nugent shot at the bear, "touched" it, found some blood but no blood trail to follow. Having found no blood trail, which is normally expected in the case of a seriously wounded animal; and having apparently recovered the arrow with no sign on it that it went through the bear, WAR contends, Nugent and his film crew concluded the bear hadn't been seriously hit. And that was the end of it until federal investigators came knocking.
How did federal investigators get involved with the shooting of an Alaska bear that may or may not have been illegal under state law? Well, that's simple. The interstate shipment of illegally killed wildlife is a federal crime under the Lacey Act. Usually, the feds wait for a state to make a case against a hunter or a poacher or a trafficker before grabbing their chunk of the criminal's hide, but they don't have to.
If they can make a case the animal was killed illegally and then shipped across state lines, they can charge, and in this case they did. Federal attorneys decided Nugent had broken the letter of the law, and that was good enough for them. Someone obviously ratted Nugent out, too. Who that was is unknown. It could have been someone involved with the show. It could have been someone involved with the U.S. Forest Service, which granted a permit to film in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast.
Whether Nugent was ratted out to state officials, who then decided not to prosecute, or only to the Feds is an another unknown. And then there is one really big question:
Why did Nugent take a plea agreement? By the terms of the plea deal, he agreed not only to pay a $10,000 fine, but to to do no hunting or fishing within Alaska or on any U.S. Forest Service lands for a year, serve two years probation, and tape a public service announcement to air during his television show.
"This PSA," according to the agreement, "will discuss the importance of a hunter's responsibility in knowing the rules and regulations of the hunting activities that they engage in, which is subject to the review and final approval, prior to any broadcast, by a representative of the United States Attorney's Office in the District of Alaska." The ad is to be 30 to 60 seconds long and broadcast every second week on Nugent's television show for a year.
The $10,000 is pocket change to Nugent. He has a net worth of about $20 million, according to one celebrity website. He's not your average hunter. So the restrictions on Alaska and Forest Service lands aren't much of a punishment. Nugent hunts all over the world. He shouldn't have much trouble avoiding the 49th state or Forest Service lands for a year.
Running a TV ad doesn't seem like much either. The strongest punishment handed out in his case might be the two years probation. Given all of this, it is conceivable Nugent just settled to make this all go away in the easiest possible way. Plenty of celebrities do.
Keeping up appearances?
But what if there is a bigger story? Is it possible that Nugent -- who promotes himself on his website as a "gun-rights crusader, musical legend and lifelong deerslayer" -- missed the first bear? What if the video does in fact show that Nugent barely nicked that animal? Is it possible Nugent decided against going to court to fight the charge on the argument that he can't shoot straight? That could be embarrassing for someone who has built a television program around his reputation as a hunter.
It might even come out that even the Nuge himself has harbored past doubts about his archery skills.
An old friend of mine, the late Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Jerry Austin, guided Nugent on a grizzly bear hunt in Western Alaska years ago. Nugent planned to shoot a grizzly with a bow and arrow. In the end, Austin said, Nugent decided the bear was very big and very powerful and potentially dangerous, and maybe the archery thing wasn't such a great idea. Nugent grabbed for a gun.
Ted Nugent, it would appear, is no Robin Hood, and maybe that's why he settled. He didn't want to have to reveal this in a court of law.
Or maybe he was really afraid the feds might try to up the Lacey Act charge to a felony and bring the hammer down on him. Federal prosecutors seem plenty happy to play rough. And even the threat of felony might have been a risk greater than Nugent was willing to bear. Felons, you see, lose the right to bear arms. It would be the golden opportunity for the feds to pry the gun out of Nugent's still warm, live hand.
Could the feds have made a felony case? Well, to do so, they would have had to show that Nugent knew he'd broken the law before shipping his bear hide out of Alaska. Ross has been publicly careful to stress that Nugent was unaware that he'd broken the law. But who knows. He could well have been aware of it when he shot the bear only to later learn before shipping the hide out of state, that he broke the law.
There is a fine line between those two scenarios, but a great reason to take a plea.
Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at firstname.lastname@example.org