In the Alaska-Yukon wilderness, wildlife crime fighters face a daunting task

There is growing need to patrol this wildlife-rich expanse, but resources are scant.

Photograph by Kevin Smith, Alaska Stock/Alamy
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The Nutzotin Mountains in Alaska and the Yukon dominate this boreal scene in the continent's northern reaches, not far from the Alcan-Beaver Creek border crossing into the Yukon, one of five linking Alaska and Canada. Replete with wildlife, this immense territory is tough to steward.

Photograph by Kevin Smith, Alaska Stock/Alamy

It is so quiet at the 141st meridian that you can hear ice crackle and shift. This is the line that divides the United States and Canada, Alaska and the Yukon. Along it, a narrow cut through conifer-wreathed wilderness marks what is, at more than 1,500 miles, the longest undefended north-south border in the world. If the snow had come on time when I first set foot here, in late October 2018, animal tracks of assorted shapes and sizes would have freckled the surface around me: snowshoe hares, caribou, grizzly and black bears, lynx, wolves.

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A cut line through the forest follows the 141st meridian, which separates Alaska and the Yukon and marks the world's longest north-south border.

As replete with wildlife as the far north is, it is largely devoid of people. The Yukon Conservation Officers recently on patrol near the
Poker Creek-Little Gold Creek Border Crossing (also known as Top of the World because it’s the northernmost U.S.-Canada port of entry) must have been irked when they spotted two men skinning a caribou on the U.S. side of the cut line. With no obvious drag marks, they lacked the evidence and legal authority to confront the hunters on U.S. soil. The possibility was real that the hunters had shot the animal illegally in the Yukon and hefted the body across the border into Alaska. As I would learn, this kind of suspected cross-border hunting incident wasn’t exceptional.

Those whose mission is to police the far north carry a heavy burden. Gordon Barker is one of only two federal wildlife officers assigned to the immense Pacific and Yukon Region by Environment and Climate Change Canada (Environment Canada for short), the agency responsible for protecting and conserving the nation’s natural heritage. He’s based in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital, where 70 percent of the territory’s 34,000 inhabitants live. A significant part of his job consists of patrolling international and provincial borders, work that’s especially demanding during the hunting seasons in Alaska. Seasons vary by species and area but generally begin in August and September and end between October and December.

Barker scouts for incursions by U.S. hunters and gathers information on trails, cabins, and mining camps. One day, he might spend up to 10 hours in a helicopter; another, he might conduct patrols in an all-terrain vehicle or organize “sit and watch” shifts.

“The sheer isolation of these areas means that the chances of detection are low,” Barker says. “It’s a long line.”

In addition to monitoring the borderlands for incursions, Barker says, he and his fellow officers must be alert to hunters using private planes to flush game to their side of the border. “We call it cross-border shopping,” he says.

Enforcing the law in this wilderness is a two-way challenge, says Rory Stark, special agent in charge for the Alaska region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. Although he’s based in an office in Anchorage, Stark, like Barker, is a field man through and through.

“While the animals on either side of the border may be the same,” he says, “hunters might incur into each other’s territories.”

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Caribou of the Porcupine herd here are on the move during their spring migration. The Gwich'in people have relied on caribou for thousands of years; the animals are also sport-hunted, but some Canadian provinces are banning the practice.


The high northern wilderness, still largely pristine, is one of the most ecologically intact places left on Earth. It supports large mammals and their long migrations, a healthy balance between predators and prey, a diversity of habitats, including millions of acres of climate-regulating boreal forest, and the wildlife-dependent livelihoods of northerly indigenous people such as the Gwich’in and Inupiat.

According to Steven Skrocki, deputy criminal chief in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the district of Alaska (who, like Stark, is based in Anchorage), the same motivations behind poaching in Africa or Asia apply up here. “Any North American species which by design possesses an organic or intrinsic element of value, whether it be a gallbladder, tusk, horn, antlers, ivory, fur, or feathers, is a candidate for commercial exploitation,” he says.

Five official border posts bind Canada and Alaska in the far north. The Alcan (Alaska)-Beaver Creek (Yukon) crossing consists of two small stations separated by about 20 miles and is busiest during the hunting seasons and the summer, when tourism peaks. It’s the only port of entry between Alaska and the Yukon that’s open year-round, 24 hours a day.

The Beaver Creek station ranks second after Vancouver, British Columbia, in the number of unlawfully imported wildlife products seized by officers or abandoned by travelers entering Canada. They include bear rugs, skulls, and claws, whale baleen, walrus ivory, eagle feathers, and the pelts of sea otters, wolverines, lynx, and wolves.

Thanks to Barker’s close collaboration with the Canada Border Services Agency, numerous illegal wildlife items are on display for public awareness inside the station. Most come from North American species, but glass cases also hold products from farther afield, including tiger-bone traditional medicine, elephant-ivory chopsticks, black coral laid out across half a shelf, python-skin boots, a caiman-skin handbag.

Some cross-border violations involve people traveling from Alaska via the Yukon to the lower 48 who aren’t aware of regulations or choose to ignore them. Geneviève Groulx, a spokesperson with Environment Canada, says mounts and rugs of hunted domestic species like sheep, caribou, bear, and moose are confiscated from U.S. military personnel as well as taxidermists and hunting outfitters, among others.

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At Environment Canada's warehouse in Whitehorse, Yukon, a Canadian wildlife officer holds a wolf hide seized at the Beaver Creek-Alcan border crossing.

Barker laments that the number of Yukon wildlife enforcement officers assigned to the field, away from the official border crossings, is based on the territory’s tiny human population rather than on its high hunting pressure. The Yukon government employs 18 to 20 conservation officers, while Environment Canada has only one other federal wildlife officer. That’s one officer for every 9,000 square miles—an area nearly as big as the state of Vermont.

On the U.S. side, the Fish and Wildlife Service assigns about 35 officers to Alaska. Alaska Wildlife Troopers, who protect Alaska’s natural resources through law enforcement, fields 88 officers and investigators, and various federal agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, National Forest System—have staff who occasionally work Alaska cases in conjunction with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even so, Stark says, “we’re spread very thin given the enormous land area in Alaska, the diversity of wildlife we protect, and the amount of big game hunting in the state.”

Recently reported wildlife crimes in the far north include the killing of bears sleeping in their den, the poisoning of predators and illegal hunting of wildlife at a remote lodge, and the outsourcing of carving of Pacific walrus ivory to a distant country. Sometimes the very people expected to be stewards—from police officers to scientists to hunters and outfitters—are implicated in these crimes.

Chris Andrews, the supervisory wildlife inspector with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, worries about the prospect of intensified poaching in the region. “My fear,” he says, “is that when others’ wildlife supply dwindles, we’ll be next.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., says she’s “become concerned that the U.S. and North America are about to experience significant increases in poaching and wildlife trafficking, including as an outcome of decisions made by the Trump administration.”

These, she says, include stripping refuge managers and others of their law enforcement capabilities while simultaneously repealing rules and deregulating hunting. In Alaska such rules had prohibited the shooting of wolves and pups and hibernating bears and their cubs in their dens, using dogs and bait to hunt bears, and killing swimming caribou from motorboats.

Sheep grand slam

As Barker puts it, “Alaska and the Yukon are a mecca for hunters from around the world.” One animal that’s a big draw is the Dall sheep, whose populations are considered stable. Sport-hunting Dall sheep isn’t for the fainthearted, as they’re adept at scaling steep terrain. Their majestic, curling horns are part of the allure; the older the sheep, the fuller the curl, and hunters must be able to judge whether an animal is old enough to be taken.

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The curling horns of mature Dall sheep rams, like this one in the Yukon, draw trophy hunters. Adept at scaling rugged terrain, the animals are challenging to track and kill.

On both sides of the border, trophy hunters are permitted to kill one Dall sheep a year. But that’s not enough for some hunters, who “will do what they have to,” Barker says, to get a “four-sheep grand slam, a prized achievement for avid sheep hunters.” The four species include Dall sheep and stone sheep—both found in Alaska and the Yukon—and Rocky Mountain and desert bighorn. To maximize their kill chances, some hunters target more than one sheep, which is illegal. (A U.S. hunter was recently convicted of violating the Yukon Wildlife Act for killing two sheep because he wasn’t sure his first shot had been successful.) Even more egregious is "flock shooting"—hunters indiscriminately mowing down caribou when they are migrating in large herds.

Skrocki says that when laws are broken on these hunts, it’s likely that outfitters and hunting guides are aware of the infractions. “There are occasions where accidents occur or best practices aren’t followed,” he says, “but there are certainly many instances where the trigger is pulled and money exchanged knowing that the law is being violated.”

Stark describes a case near the U.S.-Canada border involving a remote and historic hunting lodge nestled in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Ptarmigan Lake Lodge was built before the area came under federal protection, in 1978. Its owner, Urban Rahoi—Alaska’s first licensed hunting guide, who recently turned 100—retained the property as a private inholding. According to Stark, the lodge, which sits in prime Dall sheep country, is “one of the best sites a hunting guide could ask for.”

In 2015, anonymous letters sent to Alaska Wildlife Troopers by someone who participated in hunts at the lodge alerted them to alleged illegal hunting. Stark and his team reviewed related social media posts exposing the extent of those activities. He then flew to the lodge (the only way to reach it) to serve warrants, search the property, and conduct interviews.

In January 2019, three of Rahoi’s employees—including a former police officer from Missoula, Montana—were charged by a grand jury in Anchorage for falsifying hunt records, hunting out of season, baiting and poisoning wolves, and hunting brown bears and Dall sheep without a guide. (People from outside Alaska must be accompanied by guides when hunting Dall sheep, brown bears, and mountain goats.)

Trafficking across borders

Wildlife trafficking isn’t limited to the Yukon-Alaska border. Over the past nine years, there have been more than 1,300 seizures of internationally protected wildlife at the U.S.-Canada border. The top 20 animal groups seized most often range from endemic bears and lynx to the more exotic elephants and primates.

Native to the U.S. and Canada

Exotic

Bears, 223 seizures

Lynx, 115

Birds of prey, 98

Parrots, 86

Alligators, 81

Canids (wolves, etc.), 69

Elephants, 54

Pythons, 52

Primates, 51

Crocodiles, 35

Lizards (Komodo dragons, etc.), 29

Weasels, 26

Owls, 26

Walruses, 25

Bovids (sheep, goats, etc.), 22

Game birds, 19

Sturgeons, 19

Right and bowhead whales, 14

Boas, 14

Whiptail lizards, 13

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM STAFF. SOURCE: CITES

The three collectively were fined nearly $50,000, to be paid to the Department of Interior Restoration Fund, used to assess and repair environmental damage. They were also required to pay for public service announcements about the importance of adhering to hunting laws and were prohibited from hunting during a five-year probation period.

Rahoi wasn’t charged, but after the bust he surrendered his guide license and put the lodge up for sale. He never denied buying xylitol—a sugar substitute that’s toxic to canids—to kill predators to boost populations of Dall sheep and moose in his area.

While showing me a seized Dall sheep trophy and bear hide from Ptarmigan Lake Lodge, Stark and his team were hesitant to say more about Rahoi’s circumstances. He’s regarded as something of a legend: In 2012 the Federal Aviation Administration presented him with a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for his more than 70-year record as a bush pilot, and in January 2019, the month Rahoi’s lodge associates were sentenced for their wildlife crimes, he was selected “Alaskan of the Week” by Republican Senator Dan Sullivan.

Tip-offs help law enforcement, Stark says, adding that vanity also plays a part. “We’re catching people who can’t help themselves and brag online, including on social media.” Just as social media helped expose violations at Ptarmigan Lake Lodge, a cable TV show, Syndicate Hunting, brought its host, Clark Dixon, to justice. Dixon was prosecuted and jailed for 16 months after airing footage depicting illegal hunting in Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve.

Creative sleuthing

Nine miles into the Yukon from British Columbia’s northern border, Gordon Barker knew he was roughly in the spot where he suspected two British Columbian hunters, Scott Mackenzie and Michael Makasoff, of illegally killing Dall sheep. As Barker crouched down to tie his shoe, he spotted a rock with the lichen pattern he was searching for. It matched the rock in a photograph.

Barker had been tipped off by someone who saw the photograph online of one of the hunters with a ram; the caption described the kill site as in northern British Columbia. The discerning observer recognized that the mountain backdrop was actually in the Yukon.

Barker and colleagues also matched a photo of a mounted ram’s head on the wall of one of the hunters’ camps in British Columbia with the dead ram in the photograph from the field. They achieved this with the help of a retired animal health coordinator—Philip Merchant—who during 30 years of inspecting and aging at least 5,000 wild sheep designed the standard measuring device for assessing full-curl sheep horns.

“We relied on these rarely used techniques to obtain a search warrant and ensure convictions,” Barker says. In May 2015 a territorial court judge banned the two men from hunting in the Yukon for five years. She also sentenced them each to pay 7,500 Canadian dollars in fines and ordered them to forfeit their ram trophies.

Investigators can now also use DNA extracted from rams’ horns when they’re permanently marked or “plugged” with individual ID tags. The DNA helps pinpoint the source population of an illegally hunted animal. A DNA repository is also being assembled for bears, and Barker has already concluded one prosecution as part of Operation Bruin, a three-year, cross-border, multiagency investigation that drew on DNA evidence.

Bruin showed that Ronald Martin, a resident of Haines, Alaska, had used his First Nation subsistence harvesting rights to guide hunts in Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Yukon, with clients (including Americans) who had no such rights. The DNA from a bear killed on one such hunt he led established that the animal, whose hide was exported out of the Yukon, had been killed in Kluane.

The investigation exposed Martin as the head guide of an international trophy smuggling ring involving 15 hunters from Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, and Utah. Martin and the hunters falsified names of kill sites, including where they took brown and black bears, during at least an eight-year period. In late 2013 in the federal court in Juneau, Alaska, Martin was fined $40,000, placed on four years’ probation, and prohibited from hunting anywhere in the world for two years. He was also fined $20,000 in Canada and banned from hunting in the Yukon.

A global waystation

Wildlife officers in the far north contend not only with crimes perpetrated there but also with an increasing number of illegal shipments in transit. As Stark says, “Commercialization and the global nature of trade has changed our work up here in Alaska and made it even more challenging.”


Chris Andrews and Chad Hornbaker are wildlife inspectors on Stark’s team. With their detection dog, Dock, they check vehicles at U.S.-Canada border crossings such as Alcan-Beaver Creek, as well as cargo pallets in the warehouses of major multinational carriers and passenger luggage on international flights at Anchorage International Airport, the fifth busiest in the world by cargo traffic.

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This foot stool made out of a black rhinoceros foot was sent to an undercover agent in Alaska by a scientist later implicated in illegal wildlife trade. It is stored in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warehouse in Anchorage.

Early on a Saturday morning in March 2019, at the warehouse of one international cargo carrier, I watched as Andrews, Hornbaker, and Dock inspected goods in transit from Latin America to Asia. They were equipped with Narcan for themselves and Dock in the case of an opioid overdose if parcels they opened contained fentanyl. Hundreds of boxes of all shapes and sizes streamed by on a conveyor belt. Suddenly Dock pounced on a large plastic-covered cardboard carton. Andrews took it off the belt and carefully cut it open, releasing a powerful, briny odor. The package—on its way from Mexico to Hong Kong—was stuffed full of dried shark fins.

Andrews painstakingly examined the fins and eventually found a match with the pictures in his species identification guide. “Prionace glauca,” he said—blue shark.

Blue sharks are the main species traded legally on the Hong Kong shark fin market. Because fins of protected species that are illegal to trade can be packaged and concealed with legal ones, the inspectors would have liked to check all five cartons that made up this particular shipment—but the four other parcels had already been loaded. “What we can do now is alert the authorities on the other side,” Andrews told me.

It is well established that the U.S. is a major consumer of wildlife products, legal and illegal, imported from around the world. Andrews says that in recent years inspectors have also been seizing more U.S. wildlife products intended for export. Ten years ago, he says, the team inspected mainly imports and confiscated relatively few products, but “half our seizures now consist of exports from the U.S.”

Felbab-Brown notes the same trend. “We’re seeing more illegal sourcing of U.S. wildlife, from bears to cacti to turtles, and this also signifies how truly global Asian appetite has become.”

By both weight and number of seizures, American ginseng root bound for China accounts for most unlawful exports seized at the Port of Anchorage. Crocodile leather goods from Thailand account for most seizures of illegal wildlife imports.

When it comes to animals in the far north, Stark, Skrocki, and Andrews agree that they’re most concerned about walruses, whose ivory has long been carved by Arctic people, and bears, targeted for parts such as gallbladders used in Chinese medicine. “They’re Alaska's species with highest ‘street’ value and therefore the most vulnerable to unrestricted commercial trade,” Andrews says.

Skrocki prosecuted a case that involved two groups of men who trapped, then shot bears to extract their gallbladders for export to Korea. “We were unable to determine exactly how many gallbladders were exported,” Skrocki says, “but probably in the dozens.” The bears’ bodies were left to rot—wanton waste that is in itself a wildlife offense, prosecutable on both sides of the border.

In April 2017 four men who shot walruses at Cape Lisburne, in northwestern Alaska, removed the tusks, and abandoned the carcasses were handed down sentences that included community service and giving presentations in coastal villages about hunting ethics and the legal duty to take animals in full. Such community-based restorative justice is unusual in the U.S. but increasingly influential in Canada in criminal cases involving First Nations.

Preventing escalating crime in the far north

Since late last year, Barker says, a simple measure has been put in place at Alcan-Beaver Creek: Border agents must always ask travelers, “Are you carrying wildlife or wildlife parts?”

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Rory Stark (at left), special agent in charge of the Alaska region of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Steven Skrocki, deputy criminal chief in the U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Alaska, hold narwhal tusks from a joint case they worked on with Canadian counterparts.

People caught with illegal wildlife products at border crossings may be permitted to simply offload them and get a written warning. “We now also issue administrative monetary penalties,” says Environment Canada’s Groulx, describing fines that represent a recent step-up in Canadian law enforcement. Proceeds go to Canada’s Environmental Damages Fund. For more serious infractions, such as illegal possession of specially regulated items—walrus skulls with tusks, for instance—officers with Environment Canada share information about seizures with their U.S. counterparts.

Because wildlife offenses tend to be more vigorously prosecuted and penalized in the U.S., which also has more stringent marine mammal protection laws, one strategy pursued by Canadian and U.S. authorities working cooperatively on cases is to maximize penalties by getting suspects arrested on the U.S. side of the border.

One high-profile cross-border investigation that Skrocki and Stark worked on together was Operation Longtooth. Gregory Logan, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer from Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory, smuggled some 400 narwhal tusks into the U.S. Logan is serving five years in a U.S. prison after paying a fine of nearly $300,000, the heftiest ever imposed in Canada for wildlife-related offenses. “It was a really good joint case,” Stark says.

Nonetheless, punishments for wildlife offenses rarely fit the crimes, Skrocki says. “Penalties can be so light that getting caught and fined becomes the cost of doing business for commercial wildlife sellers. To stop it, trade must be made uneconomical, or the risks in the enterprise made too great.”

Penalties for wildlife offenses are tied to an animal’s value, determined by the court. In criminal cases, the onus is on the government to show how much wildlife is worth, which, Skrocki says, should be at least the value of a guided hunt. But “the defense makes all manner of arguments to lower wildlife ‘value’ and questions what ‘value’ means to try to lower a sentence,” he says.

That’s why a fine of $100,000 for a recent incident of moose poaching in Alaska made news. The Alaska state court ruled that each of three illegally hunted moose was worth $33,000. Until then, the state had valued a moose at only $1,000, which Skrocki described as woefully inadequate.

Poaching traditionally has been considered a state crime, with the result that penalties vary. Skrocki instead would like to see mandatory or consistent wildlife values used in federal sentencing. For that to happen, Congress would have to establish across-the-board minimum values for species and incorporate these into the sentencing provisions of established federal wildlife laws.

Stark suggests another strategy to help reduce crime—a “wildlife enforcement network for the Arctic.” A model already exists: Southeast Asia’s ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, which consists of cooperating intergovernmental bodies such as wildlife authorities, prosecutors, customs, and police.

Wherever you stand in the far north, you are a speck within a sprawling wilderness stewarded by a tiny number of guardians compared with conventional law enforcement. The unprecedented environmental changes assailing the region will compound the challenges of conserving its wildlife and habitats and protecting indigenous peoples’ ways of life. Some think that by mid-century global heating will open up a transpolar passage for shipping, in addition to other new northern routes that pose an increasing risk to Arctic species.

“The more human activity we have in the Arctic, the more need there is for an Arctic wildlife enforcement network,” Stark says. Boosting international cooperation and collaboration among the U.S., Canada, and other Arctic countries—and involving indigenous guardians—will be vital to successfully investigating and stemming wildlife crime in the far north.

Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist whose international research has focused on human-wildlife interactions. She aspires to bridge the interface of science, society, and policy through communication and improve the engagement of women in science and conservation. Now a fellow at the Safina Center, she’s developing a participatory science and community photography project on mountain goats. Follow her on Twitter.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.