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State considers hunting rights for Alaska landowners

Six weeks before he learned he was under criminal investigation for violating his department's hunting rules, state Wildlife Division Director Corey Rossi told his staff about a pet project -- unprecedented in Alaska -- to give private landowners special rights to hunt big game, even out of season, and to be able to sell those rights to whomever they want.

Rossi lost his job in January with the filing of a criminal complaint that cited him for 12 misdemeanor violations during a 2008 bear hunt. He has pleaded not guilty and his case is moving through District Court in Anchorage.

But his project to privatize some of Alaska's game lives on in the Parnell administration. At least one deputy commissioner is still working on the landowner permit project. Rossi's replacement, Doug Vincent-Lang, says it remains under active consideration, though he needs time to review it.

"We don't waste time on ideas that have absolutely no merit," Vincent-Lang said.

The idea that wild game is a public resource and not the property of a landowner is a long-held doctrine in Alaska and most of North America. But that idea is being challenged, at least on a limited basis, by advocates of intensive game management, who argue that granting special game rights to property owners will encourage them to make life easier for big game on their land. One of the leading advocates of that position is the organization Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, in which Rossi was an active member before taking over the Wildlife Division.

According to Rossi's minutes of the Nov. 1-2 meeting of Wildlife Division leaders and others in Fish and Game, the attorney general's office was already drafting a new law that would implement the project. A budget was under development to manage the project with new staff positions, Rossi wrote.

"There is initial draft language, and the governor's office has asked for a full legal review," Rossi wrote.

Rossi's minutes were distributed this month by Vincent-Lang. A copy was leaked to the Daily News.

Owning hunting rights

The proposal would encourage owners of large private tracts to increase "public-interest benefits" on their land. They could do that by allowing access to hunters, improving habitat for species such as moose, or killing predators, Rossi wrote.

In return, landowners would get special hunting permits "that the landowner would be allowed to use or sell, perhaps with special authorizations such as the ability to hunt outside normal hunting seasons on their lands."

The proposal is modeled on similar programs in western states like Utah and Colorado, where it has been promoted by chapters of the advocacy group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and its sister organization Sportsmen for Habitat. The organization has a big expo in Salt Lake City every year where it auctions special permits.

In the West, large landowners are mainly ranchers. In Alaska, Rossi noted in his minutes, they are Alaska Native corporations.

Mark Richards, co-chairman of the grassroots organization Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said Alaska hunters wouldn't be the beneficiaries of Rossi's proposal.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who would win by privatizing more hunts in Alaska," Richards said in an email from his remote Interior cabin some 60 miles north of Eagle. "It would be the orgs that get the permits to auction off, and the wealthy hunters who could afford to buy them."

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and similar organizations would also get "more power and influence to further game the system," Richards asserted.

Rossi has a strong connection to Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. In 2007, he was one of three founders of its Alaska chapter.

He was also a big-game guide. He was working as a guide for three out-of-state bear hunters in 2008 when he lied on his post-hunt reports to the state and failed to properly seal bear hides, according to the charges.

The June bear hunt took place about six months before he was brought into the Fish and Game department by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. She created a new position for him, assistant commissioner for "abundance management" -- the idea of managing moose and caribou to provide the greatest possible number of animals for hunters.

In 2010, Gov. Sean Parnell elevated Rossi to wildlife director, the official in charge of managing hunting and big-game habitat in Alaska. It was a controversial appointment because Rossi lacked a college degree and scientific training. But he was an expert at killing predators and vermin and had the backing of hunters who wanted fewer bears and wolves and more moose.

"With Director Rossi at the wheel, we at SFW look forward to some real positive changes within the Department that are long overdue!" executive director Dane Crowley of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife Alaska wrote at the time.

Constitution an obstacle?

In the minutes from the meeting in November, Rossi said the private-hunting project would require the Legislature to create a new kind of "landowner permit." He wanted the authority to dole out such permits at the department's discretion.

"Some discussions have occurred with various Native groups who have expressed strong interest in the concept, though at least one has firmly said it is not interested in providing hunter access," he wrote. "It is expected that for the program to move forward, the legislature would need to provide specific funding for the program, and new staff positions would be needed. There are many details still to be worked out, but the idea is moving forward."

One obstacle could be the Alaska Constitution. The Constitution provides that all resources, including wildlife, are "reserved to the people for common use." In the landmark 1989 McDowell decision, the Alaska Supreme Court threw out a law that violated the equal access provision by giving rural residents priority over urban dwellers to fish and game.

Given that history, would it be possible for landowners to get more rights to game than others?

"Could a constitutional law be written? Yeah, sure it could," said Kevin Saxby, a senior assistant attorney general who advises the department on hunting issues. "The goal of the law would be to open up more access for more Alaskans, I presume, so that would serve the common use and the equal access provisions in Article 8 of the Constitution."

Saxby said he has only done "a tiny bit of work" on the initiative and wouldn't say whether that included writing a draft version of a bill. "Anything more is confidential until the governor makes a decision" to take the issue to the Legislature, he said.

Byron Bateman, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife in South Weber, Utah, said in a telephone interview that landowner permits in his state have "increased the opportunity for the ordinary citizen to be able to hunt some of these private lands that they would not have been able to afford."

He described Utah's hunting and landowner programs as an example for other states to follow.

"Utah has been a model as to we how we manage all of our wildlife in the West. We've increased a lot of different populations," he said.

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, along with the like-minded Mule Deer Foundation, hosts the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo in Salt Lake City, where special permits from around the West are auctioned. Among the hundreds auctioned over the weekend of Feb. 9-12 were about a dozen private landowner permits from Utah.

Bateman said those permits sold in the range of $9,000 to $18,500 each. Another indication of the value of permits appeared on Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife's 2010 nonprofit tax returns, the most recent available. The returns show the organization raised $2.4 million from selling permits, though it didn't break down how much of those were landowner permits. It did report how much it spent buying landowner permits: $563,000.

The returns show Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife spent $1.1 million on conventions and conferences -- nearly as much as the $1.4 million it spent on big-game habitat improvements, conservation, moving wildlife and studies.

To end hunting 'socialism'

Rossi's move to give landowners special rights to the wildlife on their property coincides with the ideology of Don Peay, a Utah guide and founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Peay, who stressed that the Utah chapter isn't trying to push its view in Alaska or even with the Alaska chapter, said it's time to revisit the widely accepted principle in the United States and Canada that game is a public resource. Peay described that egalitarian doctrine, found in Alaska's state constitution and laws throughout the West, as "socialism." It offers no economic incentive for landowners to kill predators, improve big game habitat and even provide food and water for target species.

"We understand the North American model where wildlife belongs to the people, but we're also seeing dramatic reductions in game populations in the western United States under that model," he said. Population pressure, habitat loss from development and the rise of environmental organizations opposed to predator control have put pressure on game herds that weren't envisioned when the laws were written a century or more ago, he said.

"When wildlife is a very highly valued asset, people want more of it and they'll invest additional funds to make sure it's abundant," Peay said.

The same is true of professional guides and outfitters, he added. "They tend to be more involved to make sure there's abundant game herds than a lot of guys who just buy their license the day before the hunt starts and then, when game disappears, the masses tend to complain -- but what did they do to allow that situation to happen and why weren't they more involved to fix it?"

Valerie Conner, conservation director for the Alaska Center for the Environment, said she doubted most Alaskans were ready to abandon or modify the concept of wildlife as a public resource. And managing wildlife to promote just moose and caribou for the benefit of guides and some sportsmen "is draconian," she said.

"It's an ecosystem out there, and the bears and wolves and other predators play a really vital role. They're just leading us down this path to eliminate as many predators as they can and create a game farm," she said. "If you're really concerned about managing on an ecosystem-wide basis, you wouldn't be taking out all the bears and wolves and incentivizing landowners to kill all the predators on their land. It's insane."

With the Alaska Board of Game and, increasingly, the Department of Fish and Game, representing primarily trappers, guides and abundance hunters, Conner said, there's almost no one speaking out for tourism and wildlife viewing in an official capacity.

"Diversity is equally as important as abundance," she said. "There's nobody on that board who represents the thousands of Alaskans who simply appreciate wildlife for its intrinsic value or to go look at it."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.


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