POINT HOPE - Three Point Hope men have been convicted of wasting meat from two animals that were slaughtered and left behind on the tundra in 2008 - an act the hunters' elders say follows a tradition of leaving sick animals in order to protect the community.
The men were found guilty Thursday, three days after their trial began before Alaska Superior Court Judge Richard Erlich.
The hunters said the animals were diseased and that is why they left the carcasses. Eight men were charged in the case in which authorities said meat from 37 animals had been wasted.
Most of the men pleaded guilty in a deal reached with prosecutors and received fines and community service. But Aqquilluk Hank, Chester Koonuk and Roy Miller decided to take their chances in court. They were convicted of what the judge said was a nominal charge. He issued no fines, community service or education.
One caribou that looked sick had a lump on its liver and the other had already been shot multiple times in the hindquarters and gut by a low-caliber rifle when it was killed.
Both caribou were killed by Hank, but Koonuk and Miller were charged as accomplices.
Erlich said in the case of the sick-looking caribou, the men had clearly acted on the reasonable belief that they were doing right by their people.
Several Point Hope elders testified Wednesday saying the practice of leaving behind sick animals is one that has been passed down through generations and protects the community from disease.
Also, the defendants and many other hunters called to testify said they never knew hunters were required by law to take sick animals from the field.
But while the hunters acted according to their traditional practice, Erlich said they still violated state law.
He noted that the hunters could have gone back for the sick caribou in order to consult with elders and biologists.
In the case of the other caribou, which defendants said was shot all over the side, there was no testimony indicating the backstrap could not have been harvested, Erlich said.
Erlich said that he wanted to make clear that the three men who stood trial were not responsible for the "carnage" that was found that same summer.
Most of the 37 caribou have not been connected to any hunters or groups of hunters.
Hank read a statement at the end of the trial in which he said he hunted the only way he was taught by his elders. He criticized the state for bringing charges when there was no supporting physical evidence.
Many of the 25 or so people gathered for the trial wiped tears away as the trial concluded, and family members swept up the defendants into enormous hugs.