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Why is a self-appointed blue ribbon panel meeting to 'fix' how Alaska’s hunting laws are enforced?

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 18, 2016
  • Published July 10, 2016

According to a 14th century English proverb "an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper." If you agree, you'll be happy to hear Corey Rossi is now the chairman of the Blue Ribbon Panel for Improving Cooperation and Efficiencies in Wildlife Conservation Enforcement.

Rossi, former director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, was charged in 2011 with six counts of falsifying information on hunt reports, five counts of abetting a misdemeanor as a guide, and unlawful possession and transport of a bear shot by someone else. Rossi claimed to have harvested four black bears on his predator control permit, but three of those bears had been shot by nonresidents he was guiding. All offenses were committed before he was appointed director; however, an informant didn't come forward until later.

Rossi was allowed, or more likely encouraged, to leave his position immediately after the news broke. Now he appears to be trying to climb back into the driver's seat.

Blue ribbon panel

Attempting to understand the need for this panel and where it is headed I started asking questions. I soon sensed what D.H. Lawrence meant in "New Heaven and Earth" when he described "touching the unknown, the real unknown, the unknown unknown."

The wildlife conservation division initially seemed to believe the blue ribbon panel was created by Gov. Bill Walker. The division's management team learned of the panel in early June. According to the meeting summary, it was the "Governor's blue ribbon panel on wildlife enforcement." An assistant director, Tony Kavalok, was asked by the governor's office to serve on the panel, to represent the division. The meeting summary named Craig Fleener, the governor's Arctic policy adviser, as the panel's leader.

Fleener says the original concept was to create a "Governor's Panel." However, "with limited resources and time for staffing" on the state's end, the group decided to take a different tack. Now it's a committee of private citizens "who have requested state participation."

By mid-June, Kavalok had gotten the message that the group had morphed into a "citizen committee," but he was still calling the group Gov. Walker's panel. Fleener insisted the panel was "self-selected" and not appointed by the governor, and said the group would "likely address the name issue at an upcoming meeting."

All kidding aside, Fleener told me the governor had assigned him to be the group's liaison and Rossi had been elected chair. He says panel members won't be paid. They will meet monthly until the end of the year, with the option to extend.

The group "is looking at streamlining regulations, cleaning up obsolete language in the statutes, improve [sic] the relationship between enforcement, AG's staff, (Fish and Game) and the hunting public, etc." Other state officials on the panel, include representatives from the Department of Public Safety and Department of Law.

Fleener wasn't sure whether the group would make minutes available; however, it planned to submit recommendations to the governor and Legislature. He suggested I contact Rossi for more details, but later told me "Mr. Rossi does not wish to share his email address." So I guess I'll have to wait for the end of the year like everybody else.

The usual suspects

I did find out the names of the panel's other self-appointed public members. You may recognize some of them: Rick Rydell, Rod Arno, Sue Entsminger, Craig Compeau, Karen Gorden and Bill Satterberg.

Rydell is a conservative talk-show host who has written a couple of books about hunting in Alaska. In his books, Rydell scoffs at the very idea of law enforcement and principles of ethical hunting. According to "Alaska Happens," it took him seven shots to kill a caribou. He called Alaska's Tier II subsistence hunts a "discriminatory practice."

He described a "grouse netting" competition using four-wheelers and dipnets, but ended that story with a caveat to enforcement officers: "If you find some of these stories contrary to laws that you have the option, responsibility, or requirement to enforce, then that part was all made up."

In "Blood on the Tundra," Rydell claimed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game "guidelines are for tourists." He took a 350-yard shot at a walking Dall sheep ram and a 300-yard shot into a running herd of caribou.

"I wasn't really counting on a hit," he wrote. He deliberately left garbage outside for a bear to find, then shot the bear without a bear-baiting permit. The state law prohibiting hunting on the same day you are airborne? It's a "goofy regulation," according to Rydell.

Not enough moose? It's "not hunters who are the problem, it's wolves, cars and just plain old bureaucratic mismanagement." He even "takes issue" with mandated hunter-safety classes.

Since 2009 Rydell has been a part-time Alaskan. According to an Anchorage Press article, he owns a home in eastern Washington and rents a house in Anchorage.

As far as I know, no other panel members have written lurid exposés of personal hunting transgressions or moved out of state, but they all seem to have an ax to grind over law enforcement.

Compeau is a doomsday prepper. According to the National Geographic Channel website, he has a secret bug-out location stocked with "nine months of food, two years of wood and 20 different kinds of weapons." "I'm prepping for government takeover and federal martial law," Compeau explained.

Satterberg is a Fairbanks attorney who has represented clients in several high-profile unlawful hunting cases, including Master Guide Virgil Umphenour and Chad Gerondale. Gerondale allegedly offered to swap moose meat for firewood on the radio show "Tradio," thus converting game taken with a sporthunting license into de facto cash. Satterberg defended the practice, arguing trading game meat for fish is a common practice in Alaska.

"Most people don't even think about it," he said.

Satterberg was also Rossi's attorney, forging a plea bargain in which the prosecutor dismissed 10 of the 12 charges. Rossi paid a $5,000 fine and lost his big game guide and hunting licenses for a year.

The 'unknown unknown'

It's not hard to find a pattern here. All the public panel members are sporthunters. Most are, or have been, registered big game hunting guides. Most are members of the Alaska Outdoors Council. Most, if not all of them, are friends or acquaintances. In fact, most of them are known to meet regularly in Fairbanks to bitch about what they see as overzealous enforcement of fishing and hunting regulations.

There are no subsistence hunters, no one lives off the road system. This isn't a "citizen's committee." It's a steering committee of the Alaska Outdoor Council masquerading as a citizen's committee.

You might think a panel making recommendations on wildlife law enforcement should be comprised of hunters. But many wildlife-related regulations affect nonhunters as much as hunters, like those involving feeding or owning wildlife or importing exotic pets, refuge and sanctuary land uses, endangered species, taking game in defense of life or property, and the purchase and sale of game.

Even predator control and trapping affect nonhunters, particularly those who value wolves and bears or like to walk their dog on a popular trail. Why should hunters be the sole arbiters of Alaska's wildlife laws?

Especially these hunters.

Is Rydell going to propose tossing out same-day-airborne and hunter-safety requirements? Is Compeau going to slip in a post-apocalyptic provision to ensure open hunting seasons with no bag limits in the event of a government takeover? Will Satterberg champion the commercialization of wildlife or demand that hunting misdemeanors become violations, like speeding tickets, so his friends and clients aren't saddled with criminal records? Is Rossi going to propose transferring fish and wildlife troopers out of the public safety department and back under the control of the Fish and Game commissioner?

Because if Rossi, as director of wildlife conservation, had any control over the state's game wardens in 2011, he might not have been charged in the first place.

Here's what I mean by the "unknown unknown." We don't know why this panel is meeting, what it might recommend, or who's listening. Fleener says the public members weren't appointed by the governor. Okay. But how many ad hoc public committees are assigned representatives from three state agencies with a special liaison appointed by the governor's office?

Fleener says he made "every effort" to include a broad cross-section of wildlife user groups. But the public members appear to be his friends and acquaintances.

Fleener says this panel is not sponsored by the state. And it's true its meetings are not announced and the panel's minutes are not available to the public. In other words, the meetings are secret. Yet, he ran the first meeting from the Atwood Building in Anchorage, from the same floor as the governor's conference room. It was either coincidence, or a violation of the open meetings act.

Another poem may shed some light on these shenanigans. In "Advice to Travelers," Walker Gibson tells of a burro sent by mail, standing idle in a warehouse, who ate the shipping address off his bridle. "He waited till he like to died. The moral hardly needs the showing."

But, because the public is being stonewalled by both Fleener and the panel's chair, maybe the jackass's lesson bears repeating: "Don't keep things locked up deep inside – say who you are and where you're going."

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at