In late February of 2009, in Anchorage, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, as promised, explained to me face to face how Palin family friend Corey Rossi came to hold a brand- new leadership position at Fish and Game. Lloyd had told me a month earlier that he couldn't go into an explanation via e-mail.
Gov. Palin, he told me, wanted Rossi -- who at the time was a spokesman and board member of the new Alaska chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a predator-control advocacy group headed by former state Sens. Ralph Seekins and Scott Ogan -- put in the vacant deputy commissioner slot. But Lloyd strongly refused.
Finally a compromise was reached with Palin in which Patrick Valkenburg -- a former biologist with Fish and Game, Alaska Outdoor Council board member and advocate of legalized snaring of bears by the public -- would be appointed deputy commissioner. And a brand-new "assistant commissioner" position would be created for Mr. Rossi.
This was the real version of events, I was told, but not the public version. Not surprising, but what came next was a shocker.
A couple of days later Assistant Commissioner Rossi represented Fish and Game before the Board of Game in support of the very same controversial proposals Rossi had helped draft and promote as an SFW-AK board member (submitted under the name of the SFW sister organization, Sportsmen for Habitat) just prior to going to work for the department, to legalize the snaring of bears and helicopter transport of hunters who participate in the Unit 16 bear control efforts west of Anchorage.
It was a clear conflict of interest, and a 180-degree position shift by the department that a year ago had stated in writing to the Board of Game:
"The department does not support the taking of any grizzly bear by trapping, snaring, or same-day-airborne, or the sale of tanned bear hides, even in brown bear predator-control areas."
But it was allowed to happen, and because it was Assistant Fish and Game Commissioner Rossi supporting those proposals, not SFW-AK spokesman and board member Rossi, the proposals passed.
During the ensuing year, Deputy Commissioner Valkenburg and Assistant Commissioner Rossi began a top-down approach to "change the culture" of Fish and Game and get staff to support new methods and means of bear reductions.
But apparently not all managers and staff were pleased to see the department radically shift positions regarding bears, because SFW-AK began a campaign to have various Region II Fish and Game staff removed or replaced, complaining that certain staffers were hampering "abundance management" efforts and that Doug Larsen, Division of Wildlife Conservation director, was protecting them.
During this time, highly experienced and respected Region II Supervisor Grant Hildebrand voluntarily left the department (and still has not been replaced).
Fast forward to the 2010 spring Board of Game meeting in Fairbanks and the bombshell announcement by Deputy Commissioner Valkenburg that the department would be advocating to legalize the snaring of both black and grizzly bears in the Interior, outside of any formal bear control plans.
I couldn't believe it. And from the looks and sounds of it, neither could some Fish and Game managers and staff.
A week later, Doug Larsen was asked to step down from the director's position. Corey Rossi was announced as the new director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, as of March 16, 2010.
SFW-AK released a statement crowing about how they'd influenced Commissioner Lloyd to remove Larsen and put their man Rossi in, calling it a "bold move" that was "due in large part to the process and participation of SFW. ..."
I say "their man" Rossi because from the time Rossi was appointed assistant commissioner, and up until March 13, he was still listed on the SFW web site as a voting board member of SFW-AK.
Lloyd denies he was influenced. But it seems obvious partisan politics and monied special interests have compromised the integrity and reputation of Fish and Game, and the future of science-based wildlife management in Alaska.
Mark Richards is an avid longtime hunter and trapper and co-chair of the Alaska chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, www.alaskabackcountryhunters.org.
By MARK RICHARDS
Alaska Dispatch Publishing