For 22 years, Paul Atkins, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, taught school on the edge of the Bering Sea in the remote community of Kotzebue where the winters are long and cold and people live closer to Russia than Alaska’s urban core.
There above the Arctic Circle with the Russian village of Uelen only about 60 miles west across the Bering Sea and Anchorage more than five times as far away to the southeast, his son, Elijah, grew up.
Elijah graduated from Kotzebue Middle High School last year, and as the class valedictorian stood in front of the class to congratulate his classmates on overcoming a lot in the pandemic years prior.
“…At school at home, over the phone, on teams, and then back at school, masked up and behind shields,” he said. “But we did it, and even though it wasn’t ideal it made us stronger, letting us know that we can overcome anything and still be successful.”
“The pandemic humbled a handful of teachers, too,” Arctic Sounder reporter Emily Hostaedte wrote after that graduation. “Paul and Susie Atkins, parents of…Elijah, have taught in Kotzebue for 22 years and are retiring this year.
“‘As an old school teacher I learned as well, technology mostly,” wrote Paul. ‘I reflect back on when we first started our careers here, and it is amazing to me how far we’ve come. As a family of the Arctic, I will always be grateful to the NWABSD and what they provided to our students and us as teachers.”’
Flash ahead to 2022, and Paul is this guy now in the news:
“The investigation, prosecution and conviction of Mr. Atkins is a warning to others who may not consider the seriousness of illegally exploiting an Alaskan subsistence harvesting opportunity,” Anchorage TV station KTUU news quoted Alaska Assistant Attorney General Ronald Dupuis boasting. “Wildlife is a vital resource of Alaska. Our office will pursue and prosecute those violating wildlife laws.
Black & white grays
This is what you get when the government writes the news and the media simply regurgitates and slightly embellishes it as fact.
Where KTUU got the idea Paul was a guide is unclear. The state press release around which its whole story was built doesn’t mention guiding, and there is no record that Paul ever held a state guide license.
What Paul did do was what almost every male among the 3,102 residents of Kotzebue does every year. He went hunting at every opportunity. His only real crime was that he was either a cheapskate or a dumbass.
A born and reared Oklahoman, whose heart apparently never really left Oklahoma, he was apparently too cheap to spend the money for non-resident hunting licenses when visiting his old home state.
He may well have saved thousands of dollars this way.
A nonresident hunting license in Oklahoma costs only $117 more than a resident license, but the southern state – like Alaska – tacks on all sorts of sizeable fees for hunting big game: $506 for a bear tag, $306 for a tag for elk or antelope, and $280 for a deer.
Residents pay for big-game tags, too, but most tags go for $10 to $20, the exceptions being antelope and elk at $51 each and bears at $101, a fifth of the cost non-residents are required to pay.
If you figure the costs differences on those tags over 20 years, and assume the Atkins family was vacationing in Oklahoma over Christmas breaks from school in Kotzebue at a time when hunting seasons are still open in Oklahoma, Paul could have saved a fair bit of money on any Sooner state hunting adventures.
But in the process, he set himself up for a big fall.
Claiming to be a resident in more than one state in order to obtain resident hunting and fishing privileges in both (or maybe even more than two) is – as former Alaska Board of Fisheries member Roland Maw can testify – a big no-no.
No matter where Paul was spending most of his time for the 22 years he and Susie were living in Kotzebue and teaching school, he immediately voided his Alaska residency when he claimed to be an Oklahoman to get a resident hunting license in that state.
Why he did something so fundamentally stupid is hard to know. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Why the state of Alaska decided to put out a press release portraying him as a big, bad Outside hunter making a trip north to lay waste to the state’s wildlife is easier to understand.
There are significant resentments in Northwest Alaska, as in most of rural Alaska, against Outside hunters and even hunters from urban Alaska who are generally and uniformly perceived as rich and privileged.
Thus there is political hay to be made by state prosecutors portraying themselves as the good guys in their own little narrative about nabbing one of these people by sending out a press release headlined “Outdoor Writer, Pro Staffer Ordered to Pay $15,000 in fines, lose hunting license for three years for illegal harvest of Musk Ox.”
Paul did recently write a book about his years in Alaska, claims to have previously authored 100 hunting articles, and managed to get Stryker BowTech to sign him on as “Pro Staff.” From the looks of his Facebook page, it appears he was trying to swing similar deals with Cabela’s and Sitka Gear to get equipment free or at cut-rate prices, which is about all these “pro” arrangements are good for.
Mainly Paul appears to be a retired school teacher trying to set himself up with a second career as a writer and consultant.
His Facebook boasting about hunting from Africa to Alaska in an effort to do this might well have been enough to motivate someone to tip the state off to his claims of dual residency.
What followed, according to the state press release, was a “multi-month investigation (that) revealed that Atkins had harvested nine musk oxen on Alaska resident only Tier II subsistence permits,” and “harvested at least 29 different animals in Alaska with an Alaska resident hunting license” without ever mentioning the 22 falls, winters and springs the Atkinses spent in Kotzebue.
Twenty-nine dead big game animals is a big number, but 1.3 three big-game animals per year is not. Federal “subsistence” hunting regulations for the Kotzebue area legally allow a resident to kill three black bears, two grizzly bears, a moose, a muskox, and sometimes a Dall sheep every year, plus up to five caribou per day.
There is likely a hunter or two or more in Kotzebue who has killed 29 big-game animals in a single year to feed an extended family and/or an extended family and friends.
Residents of rural Alaska enjoy a federal “priority” on hunting priveleges in a state where hunting regulations are complicated. Though the state prosecuted Paul for being a non-resident, his residency under the federal subsistence law is less clear.
It defines a resident as “any person who has their primary, permanent
home for the previous 12 months within Alaska and whenever
absent from this primary, permanent home, has the intention of
returning to it. Factors demonstrating the location of a person’s
primary, permanent home may include, but are not limited to:
the address listed on an Alaska license to drive, hunt, fish, or engage in an activity regulated by a government entity; affidavit of person or persons who know the individual; voter registration; location of residences owned,
rented or leased; location of stored household goods; residence of spouse, minor children or dependents; tax documents; or whether the person claims residence in another location for any purpose.”
Someone teaching in Kotzebue during a school year that runs almost 10 months from August to May and maintaining a residence there would seem to meet most of those requirements, although Paul could run into trouble with the latter provision for obtaining resident hunting licenses in Oklahoma.
Still, it appears there has never been a federal case prosecuted in Alaska based on such claims, and such a case would no doubt open a big can of worms.
Some Alaska Natives who regularly “subsistence hunt” in the rural areas where they grew up now live in Anchorage where some no likely take advantage of property tax breaks offered senior citizens, disabled veterans, and widows or widowers of those who served in the military.
Such tax breaks would meet the disqualifying standard of claims to subsistence residency elsewhere even if those hunters maintained a residence in a rural area with the “intention of returning to it.”
The state made no mention of all these complicating factors or of the many winters the Atkinses spent in Kotzebue, although it would appear Nome District Court Magistrate Pamela Smith was aware of the situation.
After Paul offered a guilty plea to three misdemeanors – lying to get a resident license, lying to get a state subsistence permit and illegally transporting game – she was quoted telling him that “I appreciate you taking responsibility for this. You are an experienced hunter and understand the consequences. I doubt I will be seeing you here again.”
She then fined him $15,000, revoked his hunting privileges for three years, put him on probation for the same time, and told him the state would be keeping 20 “taxidermy items” seized as evidence.
Such seized items are annually auctioned off, so the state could yet net a few thousand dollars more from Paul’s bust.
Not that everyone thinks this enough. Rod Arno, the public policy director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest organization of hunters and fishermen, called the fine way too small.
He doesn’t think it enough to discourage others, and believes various double standards in the treatment of Paul Atkins cannot be ignored.
“What if the guy lived in Wasilla?” Arno asked. “He would be incarcerated and had his guns, boots, plane, etc., all confiscated. Plus fined.”
The way Arno sees it, Paul got the rural resident exemption from strict enforcement of hunting law followed by some public humiliation due “white, privileged, Bush teachers” who break the law in a state anxious to show it isn’t letting “Outsiders” get away with anything.
Arno argued there should be some uniformity in the punishment doled out for those who break fish and game laws in Alaska no matter where they live or who they are, but the system just doesn’t work that way.
Maw, a friend to former Gov. Bill Walker and well connected to the state’s most powerful political lobby in the form of the commercial fishing business, went way beyond what Atkins did in terms of breaking Alaska residency laws and got off with little more than a slap on the wrist.
A guy who for years claimed to be a resident of Montana and of Alaska, Maw claimed Alaska as his sole residency when it came time time to claim Permanent Fund Dividend checks and take advantage of that state benefit.
And as a one-time professor at Lethbridge College in Alberta, Canada, he’d spent years and years before that off-and-on claiming to be an Alaska resident when he visited the state in the summers to commercial fish in Cook Inlet.
When his lying ways finally caught up with him, he cut a plea deal with the state that wiped out 12 felony charges of ripping off the PFD and most of the charges of lying to obtain various licenses.
He pled guilty to one count of “unsworn falsification in the second degree,” a misdemeanor, and was ordered to pay z $500 fine and reimburse the states $9,582 for the illegally collected PFDs and to cover the difference in costs between resident and nonresident hunting and fishing licenses.
The total of $10,352 was only $3,107 more than the state of Montana fined Maw seven years earlier for lying about his residency there to illegally obtain “resident conservation/fish, deer, elk, migratory and/or upland bird licenses” for a span of seven years.
The biggest penalty Maw paid for his lying ways, in fact, might have come in the loss of a profitable relationship with the state of Alaska that ended after he was discovered to be a Montanan. State records show that Maw had been pocketing good money – $120,002 in 2013, $154,657 in 2014, and $164,090 in 2015 – to run the state “test boat” operation used to make in-season determinations on the size of sockeye returns to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
The contract was let in a competitive bidding process that provides a 5 percent preference for Alaska residents. No attempt was ever made to see if those contracts were legally obtained in light of the discovery Maw had been a resident of Montana at the time they were signed.
Maw got off even lighter than Paul Atkins and without the Department of Law publicly calling him out to make a display of how it cracks down on Montanans who come to Alaska to illegally fish as residents and while here steal from the Permanent Fund.
It all just goes to show life ain’t fair. But sometimes when government bureaucrats get involved in playing the media it is nicely orchestrated.