In December of 2010, I was one of the attorneys sitting at the table on the Plaintiffs’ side of the courtroom in Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, a lawsuit filed in 2009 challenging the constitutionality of the State of Alaska’s exploratory permitting scheme for upland hardrock mineral exploration. Namely, the State of Alaska had (and still has) a practice of not conducting what is called a “best interests” determination before allowing hardrock mining exploration, while requiring a best interest finding for similar activity for oil and gas exploration. The lawsuit focused on the 20+ years of exploration conducted at the Pebble Prospect – it was a perfect illustration of why such findings should be conducted: the State would have to take a hard look at the long term benefits and impacts of such activity and allow the public the opportunity to comment on the project. In its 20+ years, the Pebble exploration effort itself had not been subject to public comment to any State agency – and it still hasn’t.
During the trial, one of the Plaintiffs’ experts was Lance Trasky, a fisheries biologist with extensive fisheries and wildlife management experience after a career in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. His opinion focused on the impacts of Pebble exploration to wildlife and the adequacy of Pebble’s mitigation measures involved in water use to protect fish. On cross-examination, the Pebble attorney, Matt Singer with Jermain, Dunnagan & Owens, sought to discredit Mr. Trasky’s opinion by pointing out that Trasky had not relied on all available information to form his opinion. Namely, Mr. Singer sought to point out that Mr. Trasky had not considered data reported in wildlife sighting logs maintained by exploration drill rig crews. All crews on site were required to write down in this log the wildlife sighted while out at the work site.
After establishing that Trasky had not relied on the logs, Singer then went on to question Trasky about why he hadn’t relied on them. Wouldn’t other wildlife experts preparing an opinion rely on such a document?, Singer asked. No, Trasky replied. He didn’t rely on them because they were unreliable, Trasky said. And why were they unreliable?, Singer queried. Because one of the reports noted that the crew observed mountain goat in the region, a species not present in that part of the state. But that wasn’t the real problem. The same crew had also reported sighting a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Outburst of laughter in the courtroom, with Mr. Singer looking like he wished he would have personally examined that exhibit before presenting it to the expert witness.
I was reminded of this the other day with a report from the Alaska Dispatch about Matthew Terry, a young fishing guide from Alabama who spends his summers helping to catch fish on the Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula. It turns out that Mr. Terry has caught the unfavorable attention of Alaska State Troopers with his logbooks from his summer 2012 catch. Among the species that Mr. Terry reported harvesting with his clients were tuna, blue whale, “jack” beluga (adopting the term from “jack” king, which is a juvenile king salmon that has returned too early), and Chupacabra. Yes, Chupacabra, the mythical monster from Mexico that is famous for its fondness for goat bloodletting, and featured in the “X-Files” episode, “El Mundo Gira.” Unfortunately for Mr. Terry, Alaska’s fish and game enforcement officers expect guides to take seriously their responsibility to accurately report their catch, leading to their issuing a summons for his appearance in court.
Alaskans take their fish and wildlife and laws related to them rather seriously. You can earn stiffer penalties for poaching than for your first (or even probably second or third) DUI. (Not that I agree with such results – DUI penalties should be much stiffer than they are.) The abundance of fish and wildlife resources are among the things that make Alaska truly special. One of the important tools for fisheries or wildlife managers is knowledge of the population. The State lacks the initiative (certainly not lacking the money with a $15 billion budget reserve) to actually go out there and conduct population counts on major fish and wildlife populations at all locations in the state, so one of the things that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game relies on is self-reporting. Individuals who are out there in the country (for example, drilling crews) or harvesting fish or wildlife (users and guides) will have much more opportunity to report on population status than state biologists. Part of keeping track of that population is the consumption of it. Knowing the harvest levels of certain species aid fisheries and wildlife managers in determining harvest levels in the future.
And while the Pebble drilling crews or the young man from Alabama provide us some much-appreciated entertainment value, their creativity in reporting on official documents – and the reaction to those reports – highlights that in Alaska, you don’t mess with fish and wildlife management.