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Know the West

Alaska wildlife woes raise red flags "outside"


Anyone who cares about wildlife should pay attention to a scandal unfolding in Alaska.

Earlier this month, Alaska Fish & Game Division of Wildlife Conservation director Corey Rossi resigned under allegations that he systematically falsified bear hunting records and violated guiding regulations shortly before being appointed to the agency in 2008. If convicted, Rossi is guilty of defrauding the people he was appointed to represent and undermining the wildlife resource he was sworn to defend.

That may be Alaska’s mess for Alaskans to clean up. But Rossi’s fall exposes a cancer that is spreading through America’s wildlife management: cronyism and big money undermining the foundation of North American wildlife management.

North America’s wildlife is the envy of the world. Our wildlife management is based on the principle that wildlife belongs to everyone equally. By comparison, in Europe wildlife belongs to the rich and royal, who have hoarded the resource since the day of Robin Hood.

In North America, heroes like Theodore Roosevelt forged a different story with a far better outcome: wildlife is managed as a public trust using scientific principles for the common good.

Then along come folks like Rossi. Rossi was appointed to head a wildlife agency with zero credentials in biology, but a wealth of political connections. Once in office, he began rewarding those connections. The system is legal, but it stinks like an old bait bucket.

Big game licenses now mean big money. Hunters have developed fair plans – such as lotteries – for sharing the resource with everyone equally. But a group of well-heeled hunters, allied in groups such as Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife, have increasingly persuaded legislatures to let them in on the action. They are given tags to auction off, often at five or six figures.

States agencies get a cut of the money, but just how much varies from state to state. The money is big, but accountability is poor. The tags essentially give the rich a chance to cut to the front of the line and avoid the rules others must abide by.

Once appointed to high office within AF&G, Rossi handed four “governor’s tags” to an outfit he once presided over  -- Alaska Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife – to auction off. He also championed Sportsmen for Fish  & Wildlife’s biologically dubious anti-predator policies.  

Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife cheered Rossi as “one of our own” when he took office. So far, they’ve been silent on his fall. Rossi’s apologists in Alaska, true to form, say it’s all a plot by "outside" vegetarians and animal rights activists.

Meanwhile, SFW promotes crackpot schemes of predator control (coyotes in Utah, bears in Alaska) that are unethical, unscientific and generally a colossal waste of money.

Director Rossi was caught in his own snare. But all wildlife enthusiasts – hunters and non-hunters alike – must make sure that our wildlife management is run by sound science, not political hacks out to make a killing.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ben Long is an author, outdoorsman and conservationist in Montana. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Robin Hood image courtesy Flickr user Sam Leivers.

Image of elk in Girdwood, AK, courtesy Flickr user Princess Lodges.