An Alaska man who poached three moose and left most of the meat to rot has been sentenced to nine months in jail and fined more than $100,000.
Rusty Counts, 39, of Anchor Point, shot the moose near the town over two weeks in September. He pleaded guilty Nov. 6 to 21 misdemeanor wildlife counts and violations, including wanton waste, exceeding bag limits and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Hunting regulations near the Kenai Peninsula community require moose to have antlers measuring 50 inches across to be harvested. None of the three moose had the required spread, said Aaron Peterson, an assistant attorney general who prosecuted the case.
"The working theory is that he realized they were sublegal and decided not to stick around to salvage the meat," Peterson said Monday. He called the case one of the most egregious poaching events ever seen by Alaska state wildlife troopers.
Alaska officials take seriously the harvesting of moose and salvaging of meat, Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said.
A bull moose can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and feed a family for months with meat free of chemicals and hormones. A successful hunt is also a source of pride, Marsh said.
"It's a really important part of our culture and tradition, and people take that seriously," he said.
The case began Sept. 2 with a tip to wildlife troopers that a sublegal moose with antlers of about 45 inches was shot and abandoned. Counts was the suspected shooter, witnesses said.
A second tip came in Sept. 14. A teacher reported a second dead moose shot the day before. The moose had an antler spread of just 25 inches, half the legal requirement. The teacher recognized one of the hunters, a former student, with an adult.
Troopers interviewed the boy, who is Counts' nephew. He confirmed that his uncle had shot the two moose plus a third with a 26-inch antler spread on Sept. 7 when he was not with his uncle. Both hunters left their rifles in the woods Sept. 13 to avoid being caught, the boy said.
Troopers interviewed Counts, and he admitted shooting the three moose.
Jeff Selinger, a Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist in Soldotna, said the 50-inch antler requirement extends the hunting season and protects younger mature moose, ensuring that they will be around for future breeding.
Hunters can educate themselves on determining a legal moose by reading regulations and watching department videos. If there's doubt, Sellinger recommends passing up the shot.
"You're going to pass up some legal moose doing that, but you're not going to shoot a sublegal moose," he said.
Peterson backed the hefty penalties for Counts as a deterrent to others. If Counts had salvaged meat from the first moose, he likely would have been penalized for a single hunting violation.
"That meat goes to shelters, food banks. It goes to people who need it," Peterson said. "Instead, we have three bull moose that fully go to waste."
Counts was fined $97,650 and ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution. He forfeited his rifle and an all-terrain vehicle and was sentenced to 270 days in jail.
“If you do the right thing in the field, this kind of thing doesn’t happen. But if you poach and leave moose, these are the appropriate sanctions, in the state’s view,” Peterson said.