Amid scandal, a top Alaska wildlife official quits

 

Alaska's politically-charged system of wildlife management -- detailed in a 2011 HCN cover story -- is looking disgraceful now.

Corey Rossi -- the controversial director of wildlife conservation, within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- has been charged with 12 counts of violating hunting regulations. Rossi, 51, has resigned -- and many of his employees are glad to see him go.

Rossi was a Sarah Palin legacy: Near the end of her brief reign as governor, in December 2008 Palin appointed Rossi to a newly created position with an ominous title -- "assistant commissioner for abundance management." That was code for the desire to kill more wolves and bears, to try to boost populations of moose and caribou, so hunters might have more opportunities to bring home trophy antlers and meat. Then in 2010 Gov. Sean Parnell promoted Rossi to be director of wildlife conservation, overseeing 160 seasonal employees and a $20 million budget, with a mission of encouraging public involvement in wildlife conservation in Alaska.

Before the state jobs, Rossi made his career as a federal predator-killer. In that role, according to the Associated Press, he employed Palin's parents for 14 years (Palin's mother reportedly asked Palin to appoint him to the state agency). Rossi does not have a college degree; while leading the state agency, he pushed for more aerial gunning of wolves, and snaring of bears including grizzlies. He's also been active in the Alaska chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a group that pushes for more killing of wolves around the West.

Rossi and other controversial appointees defended their predator-killing policies in the HCN story -- which was headlined "Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control" -- including the gassing of wolf puppies in a den:

Rossi says it was the most humane way of killing them. "No one likes to kill puppies, and we don't emphasize that we do it. But animal shelters kill 4 million (dog) puppies and kittens a year (and) everyone knows that the animal shelters aren't mean. ... Predator control is not designed to be fair," Rossi says. "It's not fair chase (an ethical standard for hunting). We're supposed to be as efficient as possible."

More than 150 biologists and other experts had signed a series of letters opposing Rossi, saying he lacked credentials and his policies were misguided. In an April 2010 letter, for instance, biologists said Rossi had made "maximum production of wild game meat ... the ... single, overriding objective." They said that "science, rather than politics, should be the guiding philosophy of professional leadership" and "an effective Director must also be able to lead the Division in matters such as habitat protection, biodiversity conservation, endangered species management, and watchable wildlife."

Of course many states have politicians meddling in wildlife management, but as the HCN story showed, that dynamic has been especially obvious in Alaska for many decades. Our writer, Tracy Ross -- an award-winning journalist and book author who has worked as backcountry ranger in Alaska -- chronicled how the state's wildlife agents and hunters kill more than 1,000 wolves per year in the efforts to boost moose and caribou. Alaska voters have passed two ballot measures limiting or banning aerial gunning, yet the Legislature, governors and their appointees repeatedly overrode those ballot measures. A third ballot measure was defeated in 2008 when Palin's administration campaigned heavily against it.

HCN also reported how a great deal of Alaska research shows that predators like wolves do impact prey populations. It's part of a shift in the old prevailing thought that prey and predators naturally interact without population disasters. As Tracy Ross wrote:

With decades of information-gathering like this, Alaska arguably has more knowledge of predator-prey dynamics than any other state. It is knowledge that other states struggling with their own predator issues can learn from, and it includes some surprises that wildlife-lovers may not want to accept. Singling out and killing a sole pack of wolves (including their puppies), for instance, can almost immediately boost a caribou population in danger of extinction. But actions like these are inciting a war between predator-control advocates and those who -- for a variety of reasons -- oppose such tactics. The science informs the politics, but the politics threaten to overrule the science.

In an accompanying HCN essay, headlined "How my thoughts on wolves have changed," Craig Medred, a former outdoors columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, who now works for AlaskaDispatch.com, wrote:

The wolves that periodically venture into the valley behind my home are blood-thirsty killers. That's what I admire about them. They evolved to near perfection in their ecological niche ... I love wolves. And I have come to believe those wolves should die."

One of Alaska's most questionable practices -- the use of snares baited with food to capture and kill hundreds of black bears and dozens of grizzly bears in recent years -- was described by Ross thusly:

According to some people who've seen bear-snaring in action, as soon as a bear is caught by the wire, it jerks frantically trying to free itself. Though the program's supporters say the snares are not painful as long as the bears don't struggle for too long, both black bears and grizzlies have been known to maim themselves while gripped by the wire. Black bears reportedly grunt and moan in a way that sounds like a person crying. At least three grizzlies that were accidentally snared had to be euthanized.

In the wake of Rossi's bust and resignation, more than 70 biologists and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles sent another letter to the state Board of Game, protesting the bear-snaring:

Unlike hunting, where a hunter can carefully select for large, male bears, snaring is indiscriminate. Snares catch black bears and brown bears, female bears with cubs, and sometimes even older cubs. ... Snaring and killing of bears regardless of age, species, and gender is incompatible with the scientific principles and the ethics of modern wildlife management including the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation.

And how did Rossi get busted? Wildlife agencies in other states reportedly initiated the investigation. Eventually, according to the charging document, Rossi admitted that he'd taken three out-of-state hunters -- Robert "Bruce" Hubbard from Utah, David Reis from Colorado, and Duane Stroupe from Oregon -- into Alaska's Game Management Unit 16B in June 2008; the out-of-state hunters killed four black bears and Rossi killed one on that trip; then Rossi filed state Alaska paperwork falsely reporting that he'd killed three of the bears the hunters had killed (Reis filed the paperwork for the bear he killed).

It's not clear whether Rossi's resignation, and the scandal, will cause the Alaska agencies to back away from bear snaring, aerial gunning of wolves and occasional gassing of wolf pups. The Board of Game is considering whether to expand the bear-snaring. At that agency's meeting on Friday, a prominent member of the Board of Game, Ted Spraker, said he wants more aerial gunning -- of bears as well as wolves -- and continuation of the bear-snaring.

Rossi's boss until he resigned -- Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell -- told the Anchorage Daily News on Friday:

"... There are some people who would like to make this (Rossi's bust) about the department's programs, but it isn't. This is about an individual; it's not about our programs."

But as HCN reported, Campbell herself is one more questionable appointee: She was also part of Gov. Sarah Palin's administration -- serving as a fisheries policy adviser from 2007 to 2009 -- and her college degree, from Pacific Lutheran University, is in education, not wildlife science.

Since the Alaska programs are created and run by political appointees who often have questionable credentials and goals, then despite what Cora Campbell says, this is all about Alaska's whole system of wildlife management.

Ray Ring is HCN's senior editor, based in Bozeman, Mont.