A family from Maine that wanted to run a remote lodge in Alaska will have to pay approximately $70,000 in fines and spend the next 10 years on probation after getting tangled in Alaska's web of hunting and fishing regulations.
Lester and Marie Conklin of Conklins Lodge & Camps in Patten, Maine, bought a lodge on Donkey Lake near Skwentna and tried to make it go by selling fishing trips and sidling around state laws on bear hunting. State laws say only licensed guides can help out hunters in Alaska, but obtaining a license as a guide requires serving an apprenticeship as an assistant guide.
To get around that requirement, the Conklins, according to court documents, sold fishermen at their lodge access to black-bear bait stations.
That, according to Alaska State Troopers, was a violation of state outfitting laws. Troopers charged the Conklins with six counts of illegally providing outfitting services, and six more counts of setting up bait stations "within one mile of a dwelling or a residence.''
The residence was the Donkey Lake lodge. The Conklins put bait stations within a quarter to a half mile to provide the easiest possible access for clients.
Trooper investigator Katrina Malm said the Conklins appear to have known they couldn't put bait stations so close to their lodge or let others use them. A forensic examination of their computer showed they had been reading up on Alaska hunting regulations before starting their "fishing'' lodge.
Situated high in the Yentna River drainage about 100 miles north of Anchorage, Donkey Lake is not a very good place for fishing, she said. Salmon that go that far upstream don't arrive on the spawning grounds until late in the season when they are not in the best condition. There is some decent northern pike fishing in the lake, but hardly any anglers come to Alaska just to fish pike and those who do can find good pike fishing near Wasilla.
LODGE DREAM, LICENSES GONE
The Conklins' dreams of an Alaska lodge now appear to be over.
After a hearing Tuesday at which a judge accepted a plea deal from Lester, Marie and their son Jason, Malm said "the indication I got was that they weren't going to remain in Alaska.
"All they're basically able to do with their lodge at this point is conduct sportfishing operations.''
Sportfishing at Donkey Lake won't pay, and the Conklins need money because they are facing some hefty bills here.
Lester agreed to pay the state $44,000 in fines; Marine settled for $18,000 , and Jason was hit with $8,000. There were also jail sentences that ranged from 70 to 300 days, but all jail time for all of the defendants was suspended.
Along with paying a total of $70,000 in fines, the Conklins were collectively ordered to forfeit to the state a boat, boat motor, recreational vehicle, and the hides of one brown and one black bear, plus reimburse the state to the tune of $1,900 for shooting the two bears.
Lester lost Alaska hunting privileges for 5 years, Marie for 10, and Jason -- who was already in trouble for a hunting violation in Maine -- for 10.
According to a press release from troopers, video and other evidence showed the Conklins engaged in a lot of other illegal shenanigans for which they weren't charged.
"The Conklins used ... sport caught fish as bait,'' the press release said. "Lester Conklin killed a brown bear without a guide that troopers believe was attracted to the area by a recent molasses burn.''
It is illegal to bait brown bears, and as a nonresident hunter, Lester was required to have a guide.
As part of the plea agreement, charges related to these and other possible violations were dropped.
Those violations, according to the original complaint, included obtaining resident hunting and fishing licenses while nonresidents, snagging fish, taking over-limits of fish, and -- in the case of Jason -- obtaining an Alaska hunting license when his hunting privileges were suspended in Maine. Alaska law makes it illegal to come here and get a license to hunt when you've been banned from hunting in another state.
The investigation of the Conklins began in 2005 when a trooper went to Donkey Lake to check on a report of a grizzly bear shot in defense of life and property. To do so is legal, but troopers eventually concluded that wasn't what happened at Donkey Lake. They say the bear was actually shot after being attracted to that molasses burn.
Troopers got curious about the Conklins and went back to their lodge in June 2006 to check on bait stations the couple had registered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The registered bait stations turned out to be too close to the lodge, and unregistered bait stations were also found.
Then, according to the complaint, troopers talked to a client of the Conklins who said Lester offered to provide the services of a guide "including skinning, processing, freezing and transporting the bear hide to a taxidermist. E-mail communications between Lester Conklin and (the client) further indicated that (he) believed he was booking a guided bear hunt for the discounted price of $2,495.''
The Conklins were not answering the phone at their Maine lodge on Tuesday. A message left on the answering machine elicited no response.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred