Unalaska’s Wildlife Trooper Post Shrinks To One-Man Operation

Jun 28, 2018

Damian Lopez Plancarte has worked as a public safety technician for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers for about two years. He’s resigning to enlist in the U.S. Army, just as budget constraints are forcing the state to cut his job.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

Unalaska's Wildlife Trooper post is shrinking once again.

This summer, the state is cutting a public safety technician — reducing the island's once-large posting to a one-man operation.

"Dutch Harbor used to have three troopers, a sergeant ..."

Damian Lopez Plancarte is currently one-half of the Wildlife Trooper post in Unalaska — a post that used to encompass a lot more than two men.

"Like, five boat people and two administrative people were here," he says. "That was back during the crab derby days."

In the dangerous heyday of Bering Sea crab fishing, the state wanted a sizable trooper presence to police the fishery. That's why the agency stationed its largest patrol vessel on the island, along with a big crew.

But things changed after 2005. The crab quota was divvied up amongst the fleet, fishing became slower and safer, and eventually, troopers' responsibilities shifted.

"My day-to-day is pretty ... I wouldn't say mundane," says Lopez Plancarte. "But I go out, board boats, and make sure all their paperwork's in order."

Lopez Plancarte has been Unalaska's public safety technician (PST) for about two years, working as an assistant to the commissioned wildlife trooper.

Those are the only local positions that survived when the P/V Stimson was moved to Kodiak in 2015 to save money. 

"And now that I'm leaving, they're not going to hire a new PST," he says. "It's just going to stay a one-trooper post."

Lopez Plancarte is resigning to enlist in the U.S. Army, just as ongoing budget constraints are forcing the state to cut his job.

"Our preference would be to have more troopers out there," says Colonel Steve Hall, director of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.

For years, the troopers funded the PST position with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The local NOAA office was short-staffed, so the agency contracted the troopers to help enforce commercial fishing regulations.

Now that NOAA has brought on two officers of its own, Hall says that deal is ending.

"They'll take back the responsibilities and tasks our public safety technician did for them," he says. "That's their choice."

Having more local NOAA officers will help everyone, Hall says, but Unalaska's remaining trooper will still have to carry a broad caseload of commercial fishing enforcement, sport fishing enforcement, and administrative work.

He says it's not ideal, but it's not unusual either. Over the last five years, communities across Alaska have lost PSTs due to shuffled funding — from Sitka and Hoonah to Petersburg and Prince of Wales.

Despite this recent cut, there's no sign the island will lose its last trooper.

"Unalaska's such a large fishing port that I cannot envision not having a presence out there," says Hall. "It's just too busy of a place to not have staff."

The island's trooper and PST are currently in Bristol Bay for a month, helping with enforcement during the busy commercial salmon season. After that, Unalaska will officially become a one-trooper post.