Wolf Song of Alaska News

Palin to Split Brown, Blue Shirts

Wildlife enforcement no longer to be merged with state police force

Pat Forgey / Juneau Empire / December 1, 2006

One of Gov.-elect Sarah Palin's first initiatives, to separate the merged Alaska State Troopers and Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement, is receiving mostly good reviews.

The reviewers include the new Republican governor's political opponents as well as her allies.

"I think it makes sense," said Democratic state Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau. "I think it was a mistake to have merged."

Board of Game member Ben Grussendorf also supports Palin's proposal to make the wildlife enforcement troopers' "brown shirts" a division of their own.

"I was very disappointed when they rolled the brown shirts into the blue shirts. I'm glad the governor-elect is looking at reversing that," he said. Grussendorf is a former Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives from Sitka.

When Palin introduced her new public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan of Anchorage, he said splitting the agency would be one of his missions.

"I think it was a bold experiment, but I think it's time to go back," Monegan said while being introduced to the press earlier this week.

The merger was billed by the Murkowski administration as a cost-saving move, and Palin said she did not yet know what it would cost to reverse the move.

"We'll look into the cost," she said.

Murkowski's public safety commissioner declined comment, but issued a statement through spokesman Greg Wilkinson: "We are confident our merging of the administrative functions for (Alaska State Troopers) and Wildlife Enforcement have added to our ability to protect those resources."

Wilkinson estimated it would cost at least $1 million a year to separate the agencies.

Wilkinson said there are 84 funded positions in wildlife enforcement, including 18 in Southeast. There are a total of 382 troopers in the state, including wildlife troopers, he said.

That's not enough of either, said John Cyr, business manager for the troopers' union, the Public Safety Employees Association.

"There just aren't enough troopers. That's the real problem," Cyr said.

"They're not going to say this, but I believe the reason we went to one division is because they just didn't have enough to do the work."

Wilkinson said Murkowski's proposed budget for next year calls for an additional five wildlife trooper positions. Cyr cautioned that even if new positions are added - and there are currently 10 vacant wildlife trooper jobs - it takes time to get new hires trained at the academy in Sitka and through their field training.

Also welcoming Palin's proposal was the Alaska Outdoor Council.

"We opposed that when Murkowski did it," said Executive Director Rod Arno.

The council endorsed Palin in the election, and that was one of the reasons, he said.

Alaska's resources are fully allocated, he said, so any time someone takes an illegal animal or fishes illegally, it means that a law-abiding hunter or fisherman loses out.

A split of the department will cost something, Arno acknowledged.

"Absolutely it will," he said, "but the cost saved by the merger was insignificant to a department that had been constantly underfunded for years."

The Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement was last adequately funded in the administration of Gov. Jay Hammond, he said.

There were 110 wildlife troopers then, he said.

The merger has meant inefficiencies, as troopers who once specialized in wildlife and occasionally backed up other troopers were instead doing general law enforcement regularly, Arno said.

Grussendorf said that while both were law enforcement officers, there's a real distinction in the duties and both need extensive specialized training.

* Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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