Wolf Song of Alaska News

Alaska:  Case of 6 Katmai Bears Awaits Charges

Shot: Two village youths plead guilty to state violation but feds still have not filed

Tom Kizza / Anchorage Daily News / April 10,2006

Homer -- Nearly two years after six brown bears were found shot dead and left on the tundra of Katmai National Preserve, federal prosecutors have still not filed charges and are refusing to discuss the case.

The bears were first discovered by a pilot in July 2004. Within a month, according to documents filed in state court, state and federal investigators had served search warrants in the village of Kakhonak, just outside the preserve.

Two juveniles from the village pleaded guilty to state game crimes last September as a step in a larger federal investigation, state officials said last week.

But nothing visible has occurred since. James Goeke, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, would only say no grand jury charges have been filed. Beyond that, he said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

The National Park Service referred all questions to the U.S. attorney.

State game biologists and law enforcement officials say they can't explain the delay. Wildlife activists and bear-viewing guides have started to complain loudly.

"I have a significant concern that prosecution is being delayed in hopes that it will go away," said Alaska Wildlife Alliance director John Toppenberg. "It's an open invitation to those that might be inclined to poach bears."

Chris Day, whose Emerald Air Service flies bear viewers to the Katmai preserve from Homer, said last week she had withdrawn reward money contributed toward a $35,000 fund for information.

"I have a real concern when any group, Native or otherwise, gets preferential or deferential treatment," she said. "It breeds contempt."

As in much of Alaska, relations between federal land managers and nearby Native villages can be complicated -- on subsistence hunting, all-terrain vehicle access and a variety of cultural issues.

The federal preserve, just north of Katmai National Park, is a popular destination for both hunters and bear viewers. Unusually large salmon runs in the past few years have drawn big numbers of bears to the area.

Some of the area's bears come from the world-famous state game sanctuary at McNeil River. A trench-deep bear trail crossing a ridge from McNeil River to Funnel Creek can easily be seen from the air.

The first dead bears were discovered two years ago in July by Day's husband, pilot Ken Day, as he led a group of tourists on a hike along Funnel Creek. More dead bears were found on subsequent days. Chris Day said the sequence suggested at least three different incidents. Claws had been hacked off some of the bears.

"That's why it was particularly heinous to me. It was real calculated, they came back," she said. "The bears were gut shot or shot in the hind quarters. They died horrible deaths."

Four-wheeler tracks in the area led to the village of Kakhonak, 15 miles away, and that's where the investigation headed.

Federal and state law enforcement both got involved in the case. The state was eventually asked to take the case of two juveniles, who under state law must be handled as adults for fish and game cases, said Roger Rom, a special prosecutor for the state Department of Law.

According to charges filed in court last May, state troopers were contacted by a Newhalen man, after the reward was publicized. He told them of three Kakhonak men who took part in shooting the bears. Using a warrant, troopers recorded conversations between the informant and two 16-year-olds in the village. Investigators then served search warrants on their homes.

The men shot the bears at night, using flashlights and all-terrain vehicle headlights, according to the charges. They were shot with a .30-30 rifle and a shotgun.

One teenager, Andrew J. Eknaty, was charged with three misdemeanor game crimes, for taking a bear in a closed season, unlawful possession and unlawful method for taking game. The other, Bobby Hester, was charged with the same crimes and also with failure to salvage the hide and skull.

The two teenagers pleaded guilty last September as part of a deal to testify in the federal case, Rom said. A third man, who was 19, was named in the state's court filings but has not been charged.

Apart from keeping some claws, their motivation seemed to be "the thrill of shooting some bears," Rom said. He said he was surprised the case hadn't generated more attention, compared to the scrutiny given a brown bear shooting at the Russian River last year.

The two were to have been sentenced after the federal case was completed, Rom said. But after several postponements, he said he has set a permanent sentencing date for next September, so the youths can get on with their lives.

The complaints by wildlife activists are stirring new interest in the case. Glen Alsworth, the mayor of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, said he plans to ask about the disposition of the case at his next borough assembly meeting.

"If they still are investigating it, it seems like it's taken a long time," he said. "I know it was a very serious thing that happened."

Randy Alvarez, the chairman of the region's federal subsistence council, said Native hunters don't condone wanton waste. Such crimes make it hard for people who want to harvest bears for meat and fat, he said.

"It gives the village a black eye when people do stuff like that," he said.

But Alvarez, a Bristol Bay fisherman who lives in Igiugig and Naknek, said residents of his rural region do not generally hold brown bears in the same high esteem expressed by urban residents. There's been no clamor in the region for the case to be resolved, he said.

"Because there are so many bears out here and so many conflicts with villagers, there's not a lot of love for bears," said Alvarez, who lost his limping 10-year-old dog to a bear last winter.

Kakhonak, a village of 150, is thick with bears when salmon run in nearby streams, said village council president John Nelson. He said one to three brown bears "get disposed of" locally each year.

Nelson said villagers had heard nothing official about the case since investigators arrived with a great fuss -- and no notification to the local tribal council -- two summers ago.

He said he'd heard there may have been some legal problems with the searches. He also said he heard investigators confiscated several trash bags stuffed with dried steam bath herbs that had been gathered by elders, thinking they might be drugs.

Nelson said the village had not undertaken its own examination of what happened. He said he objected to investigators never communicating with the village council, either before or after their search.

"They left me out of the picture," he said.

Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at tkizzia@adn.com or in Homer at 235-4244.

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