Workers at the Pebble gold deposit near Iliamna have been fined several thousand dollars each for poaching a caribou.
Four men working for Anchorage-based Alaska Earth Sciences Inc. were involved in the June 23 incident. According to the Alaska State Troopers, three of the men herded the caribou with four-wheelers, took turns shooting it with a .22-caliber rifle until it died, removed some of the meat and left the half-butchered carcass to rot.
"During the interview, they admitted they killed the caribou because they were tired of eating beef," said Sgt. Justin Lindell, a fish and wildlife enforcement officer with the state troopers in King Salmon.
Gerald Anelon, 20, of Iliamna pleaded guilty in Naknek District Court earlier this month to charges of unlawful possession of illegally hunted game, taking a bull caribou out of season, and failing to salvage all the edible meat. He was fined $3,000 and is not happy about it.
"It's subsistence. When you need the meat, you should be able to go out and get it," Anelon said.
Chad Rawls, 20, of Kakhonak, and Peter Rychnovsky, 19, of Newhalen, also pleaded guilty and were fined $2,500 and $3,000 respectively, Lindell said.
Keelan Holman, 23, of Anchorage was fined $1,000 for unlawful possession of an illegally taken caribou.
"It was a really rainy day. We were working like hell and we were just tired of eating the food out there. We wanted to have something that we've been eating for centuries," Rychnovsky said. "We just got caught up in the moment."
The men had been living in a field camp for several weeks and doing geophysical surveys for Alaska Earth Sciences, said Richard Ellis, one of the company's owners. The firm has staked 120 square miles around Pebble, about 15 miles north of Iliamna. A Canadian mining company is trying to turn the deposit into North America's largest gold mine by 2009.
Rychnovsky said he was not aware that the caribou season didn't open until July 1, a week after the shooting took place.
"We messed up. Now we know not to do it again," he said.
Anelon said that Native people should not have to follow government hunting regulations and that a lot of people in his village feel the same way and support him.
"Everyone knows it's wrong" that he and the others were fined, Anelon said.
Rychnovsky said the men have until Dec. 31 to come up with the money. "That was the most expensive caribou I ever ate," he said.
When the bosses in Anchorage heard about the shooting, Rob Retherford, a co-owner of Alaska Earth Sciences, flew to Iliamna to interview the men and turned over the information to troopers, Ellis said.
"We certainly don't condone it. It's against company policy," he said.
Contractors were told at the start of the field season that they were there to work and that "it was not a hunting expedition," Ellis said.
Lindell flew to the kill site, confirmed that the caribou had been poached, that the men lacked hunting licenses and harvest tags and that they had illegally used a four-wheeler to chase the animal. They also illegally used a small-caliber firearm considered unsuitable for hunting large game animals in most situations.
Lindell said Holman did not poach the caribou but told the three other men to hide the carcass.
"They ate only one of the quarters and buried the rest because their boss told them to," he said.
The poaching comes as environmentalists and subsistence advocates are starting to express concerns about how the Pebble mine could affect the Mulchatna caribou herd, as well as the area's world class salmon and rainbow trout fisheries. If the project goes forward, some 2,000 workers would build the mine and about 1,000 would work there, developers have said.
Karen Stickman, who was raised in Nondalton, a Native village near Pebble, said that many newcomers are bound to put pressure on local subsistence resources.
"It's going to totally affect our way of life," Stickman said.
Stickman disagrees with how authorities responded to the poaching.
"It really makes me angry. Because, right there, it's an example of local people not having the privacy of living their lives," she said.
Daily News reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.