Alaska Wildlife Troopers do more with fewer officers

The Alaska Wildlife Troopers are spread thin across the state and asking the boards of fisheries and game to consider that when making regulations.

The agency, a division of the Alaska State Troopers, enforces fishing and hunting regulations as well as working with other agencies to prevent habitat damage and conduct boating safety education. Besides wildlife troopers stationed in the five detachments around state, there is also a special unit for major resource-related crimes.

There are only 89 wildlife troopers to cover the entire state. That leaves them relatively thin on the ground, said Captain Bernard Chastain in a presentation to the Board of Fisheries during the board’s work session in Anchorage on Tuesday.

“We have a very large responsibility to enforce the laws of the state with very few people to do it,” he said.

Wildlife trooper employment peaked in 1983 at about 120 wildlife troopers, Chastain said. However, the state population then was significantly smaller, and tourists were fewer. Since then, the state population has swelled but the number of wildlife troopers has decreased. Thus, responsibility has increased across the board, he said.

Harvest tickets have increased 17 percent and permit hunts have increased by approximately 60 percent statewide between 2000 and 2014, according to figures submitted to the board by the Alaska Wildlife Troopers. Responsible for enforcing the multibillion-dollar sportfishing, commercial fishing, hunting and big game guiding industries, the wildlife troopers’ annual budget is about $26 million and a small fraction of the total value of those industries, Chastain said.

“It drives the economy in every community we all live in, whether it’s hunting, fishing, commercial fishing, the resources across the state,” he said.

Wildlife troopers collaborate with other law enforcement agencies — on the Kenai, they share enforcement on the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery with the Kenai Police Department with Alaska State Parks on the Kenai River itself. However, in more rural areas like the Kasilof personal-use dipnet fishery, the wildlife troopers are the primary responders for enforcement.

The Soldotna and Anchor Point posts haven’t lost any positions in the last few years, said post Deputy Commander Paul McConnell. Seward did lose one wildlife trooper, he said. Turnover has been higher since the state converted its pension system to a 401(k)-type system, he said.

Besides collaborating with the other law enforcement agencies, including the troopers, the wildlife troopers adjust their scheduling during the busiest summer months to try to provide the most staffing on busy days, especially during the dipnet season, he said.

“On weekends we’ll have all the troopers work so no one has weekend off,” he said. “… We look at trying to focus more time on our patrols to hit peak times. It’s just tough. Each year it depends what’s going on.”

Though the wildlife troopers are their own division, separate from the Alaska State Troopers, they all go through the same academy and have the same enforcement authority. McConnell said the wildlife troopers help the troopers on calls when there’s a need, and similarly have memorandums of understanding with the city of Kenai about enforcement on the river.

“If there’s a boating accident on the Kenai River, within the city of Kenai but outside the state park, we have an agreement that Kenai will handle that, but if Kenai’s unable to handle that they can call us and we’ll do it,” he said. “It frees us up to do other things.”

The troopers generally acknowledge that most people want to follow the regulations and try to identify repeat offenders to prosecute, Chastain said in his presentation. To that end, he asked the Board of Fisheries to include the intent of a regulation within the regulation itself rather than in a board policy or elsewhere. Troopers also cannot prosecute or convict based upon intent and they must stand up to court scrutiny, he said.

The state prosecutors may not even pick up a case, depending on the reason, he said. Because of workload, the prosecutor’s office screens cases and may choose not to proceed, so the board may have carefully worked on a policy because the members think it’s important but it may never be prosecuted depending on the regulation structure, he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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