Last week, Rick Sinnott, the Anchorage area biologist for AlaskaDepartment of Fish and Game had two clogged voicemail boxes, one athis desk and one for his cell phone.
Flashlight's used to that. We suspect a lot of reporters areused to that. Sinnott has been the Anchorage Area Biologist for 17years. He's the guy who reporters called to answer questions suchas "How many bears live in the Anchorage bowl?" or "Why does thatone Canada goose in the flock by the library have orange feet?"(Answers: about 60; and, it's a hybrid of a lesser Canadian and asnow goose.)
Wednesday, Sinnott's voicemail box was unclogged. Flashlightheard his familiar voice say he's retired, "as of June 30"-then thevoice politely directed questions about Anchorage wildlife toJessie Coltrane, the assistant Anchorage area biologist who hasworked with Sinnott the past few years.
Sinnott's voicemail box wasn't perpetually clogged for nearlytwo decades by queries from Anchorage news reporters (they'rearen't enough of us to do that), but it was perpetually cloggednonetheless. We suspect he got daily messages from regular JoeSix-pack citizens with questions about hazing moose from appletrees, or wondering how to get rid of a porcupine that's nestingunder their back porch or reporting that a garbage-eating bear hasgotten too close for comfort in the neighborhood. In the 1990s,Sinnott once told the Anchorage Daily News that thedepartment gets five or six calls every day from people who reportproblem bears. Sinnott would tell reporters that people shouldn'tplace trash outside over night, should take bird feeders down insummer and shouldn't leave dog food outside. It's good advice inbear country-which all of Alaska is-but its repetition wouldsometimes leave even the best listeners deaf to the message.(Flashlight left trash on a curb north of Wasilla all night Tuesdaynight, even though we know better.)
Sinnott wasn't the state's area biologist in the area with thebiggest bears, or the worst-behaved bears, or the most moose, mostporcupines or even the largest area to cover. He may have been thebusiest though, because Anchorage has more back porches-and morepeople-than any other place in Alaska.
Reporters sometimes described Sinnott as "outspoken" while onthe job. Flashlight doesn't think so. Reporters tend to generalizeabout such things. We never heard of Sinnott initiating calls toreporters or whispering "I've got a story" into their ear. The word"opinionated" might be a better way to describe Sinnott and hiswillingness to speak frankly to media. The trouble is that readersand reporters might sometimes have trouble distinguishing ascientific opinion about the behavior of wild animals, with one ofSinnott's opinions about human beings, and our sometimes bumblinginteractions with wildlife. The trouble would get even stickierwhen people would interpret Sinnott's opinion-scientific orotherwise-as a policy statement from the Department of Fish andGame.
He was reprimanded for speaking out on one occasion. In 2005 hecalled some litterbugs "assholes" and was quoted in theAnchorage Daily News doing so. Sinnott told a reporter hewanted to "beat the crap" out of the unknown people who dumped morethan 30 fish carcasses in two different locations in Anchorage'sHillside neighborhood. Sinnott described the dumping as a litteringproblem. He had called Anchorage police, city maintenance crews andthe neighborhood road service coordinators-not one Anchorageofficial would help clean up the fish guts. Sinnott considered thefish heads and guts a hazardous bear attractant and took on thedirty work himself.
His comments to the newspaper got him gagged for a short periodthat year. Then-Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell orderedSinnott not to discuss bears with the media.
Sinnott's been speaking this summer about a recent bear attackon Rover's Run Trail in Bicentennial Park. Anchorage Mayor DanSullivan announced that his administration would not close thetrail, but post warning signs instead. Sullivan told an AssociatedPress reporter that Anchorage was "a city first not a wildlifeviewing area. It's not a sanctuary. It is first and foremost anurban environment," he said.
We won't use this space to discuss whether Rover's Run should beclosed or whether it runs through "urban" environs. Sinnott toldthe AP the mayor's comments sounded like an ideological argument,as if the mayor were saying, "We're not going to let the bears pushus around," Sinnott said.
Sinnott's voicemail didn't leave a forwarding number andFlashlight was not able to get in touch with him by press time. Inlieu of a proper interview, on the occasion of his retirement,we'll offer a few of Sinnott's past quotes to reporters. You can bethe judge of whether he was outspoken or simply willing tospeak:
''You wouldn't expect a big brown bear in Russian Jack Park, buta young one doesn't know better It's dangerous-not as dangerous asa big bear, but it certainly can do you some damage.'' -to theDaily News in 1998.
"I'd like to catch the assholes who did it and beat the crap outof them," -to the Daily News in 2005.
"Knobby is fat because he doesn't get involved with that wholething"-explaining to Press writer Monica Bradbury that abull moose with deformed and knobby antlers has a "testosteroneissue" and doesn't go into rut.
"It's our biggest concern it's just like an elementary schoolthis time of year."-telling the Press last September howdiseases might spread among captive moose.
"I'll do anything for credit at Title Wave" - in 2004 tellingthe Press why he wrote our judges' favorite haiku aboutshoveling snow (below).
Shoveling (bend) snow
(heave) from (bend) door/ (heave) to (bend)
gate (heave): creaking hinge
There you have it-Anchorage's former area biologist distilledinto sound bites. If you're in the woods this week, and you've gotbeer in your backpack, hoist one to Rick Sinnott's career and wishhim well in whatever comes next. Just don't spill any near thecampsite: Bears can smell beer from a mile away.