From his plane, Al Crane scanned the Alaskan coastline. Scattered on the beach below, hundreds of dead, headless walruses had washed up on shore. As the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nome agent since 1972, Crane had witnessed this gruesome sight many times before. His hard work had earned him a well-deserved reputation for approachability, fairness and understanding of the Native culture.
At a recent meeting, leaders of the Alaska Native walrus hunting community had urged him to investigate illegal walrus hunting. While most Alaskan Natives scorned “headhunting,” —killing a walrus simply for its ivory tusks—Crane could see numerous examples from the seat of his plane. Local residents typically blamed the Russian villages on the other side of the Bering Strait. They claimed time and waves brought the dead animals to Alaska and that local Inuit hunters took the tusks – the only part that could be salvaged from the decomposing bodies.
Had the animals died naturally and then had their heads cut off? Or had they been killed for their tusks? Did Russian bullets kill the animals? Had Alaskans? The situation had been going on for years, and it was time to put an end to it. Crane needed definitive answers.
Normally, Crane would have sent the items to the lab for analysis. This time, the sheer size and number of the bodies forced a different approach. A team of forensic scientists, composed of FWS Lab Director Ken Goddard, Deputy Director Edgard (Ed) Espinoza, and veterinary medical examiner Richard (Dick) Stroud, would go to the scene.