Clashing visions of justice between Alaska Wildlife Troopers and elders from the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope threaten to stall progress in finding hunters responsible for massacring 120 caribou on the Arctic tundra this month.
Meat from at least 60 animals was left to rot as still-nursing calves were stranded nearby, and troopers now say village officials are refusing to cooperate as they probe what one investigator called the worst, most blatant case of waste he has ever seen.
"We just really felt like we were doing the right thing and wanted to get them involved. And it just fell flat," said wildlife trooper Sgt. Scott Quist, who is supervising the case. "Basically, they decided that they're not going to help us and that they wanted to deal with it in the community in their own manner."
Quist, who is stationed in Fairbanks, said troopers bent over backward trying to accommodate village elders, taking the unusual steps of not immediately going public with the case and meeting with them in advance of the investigation to foster cooperation, he said.
So far, troopers have identified five suspects from Point Hope -- a community of 700 people about 330 miles southwest of Barrow -- through their police work, but they think there are many more.
Village officials say they are being kept out of the loop with the investigation and they have a hard time believing the offenders are from Point Hope in the first place.
"This is the first time it's happened. It's very strange, and so, with that said, it's very hard to believe that that was done, especially in our community, being as poor as it is," said Jack Schaefer, president of the Native Village of Point Hope. "Food is valued very much."
Schaefer said he is frustrated that the case was made public before the facts were known, especially after troopers had promised to keep it quiet during the course of the investigation. Facts are limited, he said, and it's too early to be casting blame.
"We feel that we should be the ones to handle it after the investigation is done," Schaefer said. "We feel that we need to know the reasons behind it, and we need to try them in our own way and the state will be satisfied with the results."
He would not elaborate on what the tribal council's proceedings might look like; nor would he say what the punishment might entail: "That's up to the council, and they're not lenient."
Schaefer said he did not know who was responsible for the killings. Asked whether villagers would report the culprits to troopers if they did know, Schaefer said, "I am sure that we can handle it in our own way."
NO TRIBAL COURT
However, as far as Quist was aware, there is no established tribal court system in Point Hope, and everyone is required to follow state law, he said. Troopers planned to "regroup" in coming days while they write reports, submit forensic evidence and contact prosecutors, Quist said.
"The last thing we want is to cause a rift between state troopers and the Native community up there, but we still have to conduct this investigation and we will to the fullest," Quist said. "This is a very sensitive issue because it involves subsistence in an area that doesn't get a lot of enforcement. It's a shame that things have happened the way they did."
The dispute centers on carcasses that were found scattered along a 40-mile trail about 25 miles east of Point Hope. Troopers say it appears word got out that the caribou were moving in and villagers rushed to the scene between July 4 and July 8 to conduct an otherwise legal harvest. What went wrong remains to be seen.
"I can tell you generally there was some talk of them shooting caribou and not having room to carry them home. That was one of the excuses we heard," Quist said. "I haven't heard one good explanation yet."
Investigators are focusing on villagers from Point Hope, although they have not ruled out residents of Kivalina, about 60 miles to the southeast, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.
"It's always sad to hear something like this because we do try to promote the subsistence life," said Kivalina Mayor Burt Adams. "We do depend on the Western Arctic Caribou Herd."
The herd numbers about 377,000 animals that are a major subsistence food source in the Bush, said Jim Dau, Kotzebue-area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Area residents are allowed to take five caribou per day, but troopers say it appears likely that some hunters did not have valid hunting licenses.
During the calving period there are restrictions on taking cows with calves, but none was in effect at the time of the killings, Dau said. The orphaned calves that remained in the wake of the massacre were left in the field because collecting them would be prohibitively costly and time-consuming. They were about a month old and only a few might have been strong enough to survive, he said.
Western Alaska communities were still in shock from the crime, he said.
"There's still a lot of raw nerves," Dau said. "I think people out here are still trying to get their heads around this. Everybody I've talked to is just really saddened by this whole thing."
Andrew Peterson, an assistant attorney general at the state's Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals in Anchorage, said he is working with troopers and will decide on charges in a timely manner. Such crimes can draw charges including wanton waste and failure to salvage, he said.
State officials are continuing to ask for the public's help.
The state is getting some help from the Humane Society of the United States' Wildlife Abuse Campaign, which has pledged a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the responsible parties, campaign director Andrew Page said.
To be eligible for the reward and to submit tips anonymously, call the Alaska Wildlife Safeguard hotline at 1-800-478-3377. Troopers in Kotzebue can be reached at 1-907-442-3222.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.