Alaska State Troopers claim to be unaware one of the stars of "Life Below Zero" -- a sister show to "Alaska State Troopers" in the National Geographic network's stable of reality programming -- has long been feeding foxes on the North Slope.
State law specifically says it is illegal to "intentionally feed a moose, deer, elk, sheep, bear, wolf, coyote, fox, wolverine, or deleterious exotic wildlife, or intentionally leave human food, animal food, mineral supplements, or garbage in a manner that attracts these animals."
How troopers treat the stars of reality shows has become an issue in the wake of charges brought last week against Anchorage gun shop owner and hunting guide Jim West. West stars in "Wild West Guns," one of more than a half-dozen Alaska reality TV shows now airing on various networks.
Brent Cole, West's attorney, has suggested his client was targeted by troopers because his Animal Planet show is on the wrong network.
"We think it's more than a coincidence that Mr. West's show competes with the state's TV show," Cole told Alaska Dispatch on Saturday. "The shows compete for viewers."
"The Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Wildlife Troopers do not conduct investigations based on the popularity of a reality show nor the network that it airs on," agency spokeswoman Megan Peters said in an e-mail message Monday. "The Department of Public Safety and individual troopers do not get paid for participating in productions. We have no control over ratings nor do we have any vested interest in them."
Peters refused to be drawn out on the issue of the foxes that "Life Below Zero" star Sue Aikens appears to have turned into pets by means of food conditioning.
"If anyone has any information regarding a crime being committed they are encouraged to report it to troopers so we can look into it," she said. "Perhaps if you can show us a clip of someone feeding wildlife our wildlife troopers can look into the matter. To our knowledge we have not received a complaint regarding the show 'Life Below Zero'."
Feeding wildlife is a controversial issue in the 49th state.
Only weeks ago, after troopers shot a grizzly bear roaming a suburban neighborhood near Anchorage, they charged a 71-year-old woman with illegally feeding wildlife because the animal got into garbage left in her yard.
The fox-feeding on "Life Below Zero" is far more blatant. On the show's website, Aikens is pictured with her hand outstretched to a fox above a caption that reads: "Dinner for Two: The foxes they are my social world ... People are 350 miles away. The foxes are family. My favorite thing about the foxes is that they are willing to share the tundra with me. They are allowing me to experience what they are, what they can be. You know they're not just a fur coat. They're friends."
Bear man Charlie Vandergaw of Anchorage thought the same of the black and grizzly bears he made into his pets at a remote camp across Cook Inlet from Alaska's largest city. The state hauled him into court, fined him $20,000 and threatened him with jail if he didn't quit feeding bears in an effort to make the animals his friends.
Aikens appears to have been engaging in similar activities for some time from the remote Kavik River Camp in an effort to make the foxes her friends. Nearly two years ago, when the oil camp she manages was being sold, she sent Fox talkshow host Greta Van Susteren a message along with some photos of the foxes, saying "I will start to actively push my little foxes away over the winter as I fear for their safety and it will take several months for them to learn distrust of me so they stay away..."
Gretawire headlined the report "Wait until you see this! She is going to have to move!"
In May of last year, Aiken, still on the Slope, sent Van Susteren another message about plans to bring grandchildren north to "learn to fly planes and pet foxes."
A letter and photos of the foxes are posted on Gretawire.
The state ban on feeding wildlife is intended to prevent just the kind of wildlife habituation in which Aiken appears to have engaged. And though she has not hidden what she's done, troopers claim to have known nothing.
Tricky Alaska hunting laws
Peters said troopers only learned of West's alleged activities because of a tipster.
"We do not have a trooper assigned to watch all the productions that are filmed in Alaska," she said. "...the case regarding Mr. West's actions stems from a trooper receiving information from a land owner (Ahtna) regarding hunting/bear baiting occurring in an area that Mr. West did not have permission to operate as a big game guide."
West is alleged to have conducted hunts on lands owned by the Native corporation without its permission. Cole, his attorney, contests that accusation.
Four of the 17 charges against West involved accusations of trespass. Three of the charges involve a black bear shot in May 2011. According to an affidavit filed in state District Court in Glennallen, four clients were with West on May 26 of that month when he shot a bear that charged him.
It is legal for anyone -- guide or hunter -- to shoot a charging bear in self-defense, but after such a shooting, the shooter is required to fill out paperwork and forfeit the hide to the state. West didn't do that.
Instead, he claimed he had shot the bear a day earlier while he was alone. It is legal for a guide to do that. It is illegal, however, for a guide to shoot a bear on his own tag while with a client.
Alaska hunting laws can be rather complicated, as rock star Ted Nugent -- the host of another TV reality show -- discovered in 2009. Nugent nicked a bear with an arrow while on a hunt in Southeast Alaska, and later killed another bear. For that, he paid a $10,000 fine because of a law unique to the Southeast region of the state. The law dictates that if a bear hunter draws blood from a bruin, their hunting is then over for the season.
Nugent later tried to blame the charges against him on a "corrupt" Alaska system, claiming "only in the southeast region of Alaska ... if your bullet or arrow shows any sign of hitting a bear, then your tag is invalidated. I still can't find anyone who has ever heard of such a regulation, even amongst lifetime Alaska resident hunters, guides and outfitters, even the judge in Ketchikan stated on record during the court hearing that he had never heard of such a law. I was blindsided by this, and to my knowledge, the only person to ever be charged under this bizarre regulation."
It appears, however, that members of Nugent's hunting party knew of the law. They simply failed to follow the absolute letter of the law, which might turn out to be the same kind of problem West is facing.
The moral of the story is that if you are filming an outdoor show in Alaska, you should be very careful to follow state regulations -- dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" -- unless, of course, you are filming an outdoor show in Alaska apparently invisible to the authorities.
Then you have nothing to worry about.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com
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