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The squirrel skull peeked out at me from the jumble of roots in the woods behind my house. It was perfectly clean. I was 10 years old and I took it home and put it on a shelf in my bedroom.
Years later I was studying biology and I'd added a raccoon and a deer skull to my collection. A friend gave me a desert-weathered antelope skull and I picked a few mice skulls out of owl pellets. Some people thought my skull collection was morbid, but most of my friends appreciated the outdoors and natural history. No one realized that technically, it was completely illegal.
When I found a seal skull on the beach I decided it was time to ask some questions. I learned the rules regarding skulls and animal bones are funny - some are completely legal to keep, most are legal if certain protocol is followed, and some are highly illegal.
Technically, a person cannot simply pick up parts of a dead animal and keep them, according to the Alaska Fish and Game regulations (AS 16.05.920). Practically, it's a little more flexible.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act has allowances for beachcombing and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issues permits for people to possess animal parts for educational and scientific purposes. Hunters and trappers can keep any parts of an animal they legally harvest - or give them as gifts.
"If you take the animal under a hunting license or trapping license, you can keep it," said Ryan Scott of the Fish and Game permitting section. Game parts, including the skull, can be given away. A form in the back of the Alaska hunting regulations documents the transfer of possession and should be filled out.
"If you find shed antlers, you can keep them," Scott added.
Wildlife managers are not worried about people who are interested in natural history. Biologists and wildlife enforcement officers are concerned about poaching, waste and the lucrative black-market trade in animal parts. Last fall three men were caught in Prince William Sound with a cooler full of bear paws and gall bladders, the remains of at least 10 black bears that had been illegally snared. After the select parts had been high-graded for sale on the Asian market, the bears were left to rot in the forest.
Federal regulations govern marine mammals. The National Marine Fisheries Service deals with seals, whales and sea lions, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for walrus, polar bears and sea otters. State regulations cover pretty much everything else.
It is legal to keep clean, disarticulated hard parts of marine mammals that are found within a quarter-mile of the ocean - as long as they are not from an animal listed under the Endangered Species Act. Harbor seals are not endangered, so it's OK to keep the skull. However, I should report it by calling NMFS at 586-7225. They will note what I have, where and when I found it and they'll give me a number to write on a tag and affix to the skull.
In some parts of Alaska beachcombers find walrus ivory and skulls, and these are also legal to keep - just call USFWS at (907) 786-3815. The same is true for a sea otter skull. But you can't keep the meat, hide or fur of any of these marine mammals.
Steller's sea lions and most large whales such as humpbacks are endangered, and it's illegal to have their parts. Baleen, however, may be possessed if it is purchased as a handicraft item from an Alaska Native and it was taken legally in a subsistence harvest.
Former Empire Writer Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He still has that squirrel skull although he learned that technically, it's a gopher. For comments or questions, he can be reached at riley_Woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us. For more information about possession of animal parts, call Fish and Game at 465-6197.