Kaktovik man agrees to plead guilty to illegal polar bear harvest, faces 4 months in prison

Chris Gordon, center, sits during a meeting about polar bear management in Kaktovik in June. He agreed to plead guilty Friday to a single count of shooting and killing a polar bear in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

A man from the North Slope town of Kaktovik has agreed to plead guilty to killing a polar bear without harvesting any of its meat, a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Chris Gordon will accept a maximum prison sentence of four months and a $4,500 fine, according to a plea agreement filed Friday that was signed by his attorney and federal prosecutors. Gordon, a whaling captain, also agreed not to harvest any marine mammals for a year after his sentence, with the exception of bowhead whales.

A spokeswoman for the Anchorage-based federal prosecutors, Chloe Martin, declined to comment, saying her office was “letting the plea agreement speak for itself.” Gordon’s attorney, Brian Stibitz, didn’t immediately respond to phone and email messages Friday.

IRead more: As polar bears encroach on this Alaska village, feds charge whaling captain with illegally shooting one]

Kaktovik, on Barter Island on the Beaufort Sea coast, has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists, who pay thousands of dollars to watch polar bears that eat scraps of whale meat left near the village after its annual subsistence bowhead harvest.

Coastal Alaska Natives are also allowed to harvest polar bears for subsistence, or for crafts, but only if that’s done in a non-wasteful manner.

While tourism has provided jobs and income for some residents, others have complained about the dangers posed by polar bears that seem increasingly habituated to humans.

[Read more: In Kaktovik, sea ice loss means a boom in polar bear tourism]

Gordon was charged in July of a single count of “wasteful taking of marine mammal.” Prosecutors alleged he shot the polar bear in front of his house after it was attracted by butchered whale meat in his front yard, and they said he left the carcass there for five months without salvaging any of it.

Gordon, in Friday’s plea agreement, acknowledged that those allegations were true.

He also acknowledged that he failed to use bear-resistant food storage lockers for the whale meat, even though they were available. The agreement also says that a snow removal vehicle moved the polar bear carcass a few weeks after Gordon killed it, and that several months after that, he “caused the polar bear carcass to be discarded and burned in the Kaktovik dump without ever using or salvaging any of its parts.”

The snow removal vehicle also ripped a paw off the bear that was left behind on Gordon’s lawn, and he told federal agents that they could take it because it would “save me a trip to the dump,” the agreement said.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the killing of animals in self-defense, but the plea agreement said that’s not why Gordon shot the polar bear.