Story last updated at 3:20 p.m. Friday, August 9, 2002

Homer resident to make rules on game board
By Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

photo: news
"I think the best attribute a game board member can have is an open mind, without any preconceived agenda. Someone who can listen to public comment and proposals ... and have a discussion among the board members themselves before coming down on it." <> Jack Lentfer, state Board of Game nominee  
Homer resident Jack Lentfer was named by Gov. Tony Knowles recently to the seven-member state Board of Game, the latest in a series of honors that the retired wildlife biologist takes in stride.

In addition to having served on the board before, Lentfer has been appointed to the federal Marine Mammal Commission by the first President Bush and to the Steller sea lion recovery team, which formed in 1990 when the species was listed as endangered.

But the positions Lentfer has held pale next to some of his other experiences. For starters, he was once chased by an aggressive polar bear that came within three feet of him before it was shot by one of Lentfer's coworkers.

And then there was the time he was in a helicopter that crashed on an Arctic ice floe.

"Actually, we had more close calls with helicopters than with bears," Lentfer said. "We were always flying them in whiteout conditions. We crashed that one north of Barrow on sea ice. We were tracking a bear down low, and something went wrong with the engine. We weren't high enough for the pilot to auto rotate down, and we crashed. The helicopter was a wreck, but we walked away from it."

Lentfer is a trim, unimposing man with an easy smile and a friendly demeanor. Though he's been in Alaska longer than it's been a state, he grew up in Livingston, Mont., where he said he did a lot of fishing and hunting.

That lifestyle led seamlessly to his life's work.

"I got my training at Montana State College, and came up here to work for Fish and Wildlife in 1957, before statehood," he said. "Drove up the highway to Anchorage, and that was it."

In 1964, Lentfer began working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a polar bear research management biologist.

Lentfer returned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act transferred authority over polar bears from state to federal control.

He remained there until 1977, when he returned to Fish and Game as a regional supervisor in Southeast Alaska.

He stayed with Fish and Game until 1987, when he retired after nearly 30 years as a biologist. That year, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Homer as full-time residents.

"We love Homer," he said. "We like the people, it's a community with a lot of volunteer stuff being done. I've had a long relationship with the Homer area. I planted rainbow trout in China Poot Lake on June 1, 1957, my first assignment."

In 1970, he staked 5 acres in Bear Cove, at the head of Kachemak Bay, where he built a cabin that he and Mary still frequently visit.

After retiring, Lentfer worked independently as a wildlife consultant, and in 1991 was appointed by then-President Bush to the Marine Mammal Commission.

But it was his time as a polar bear researcher that he remembers most fondly.

"It was a wonderful job," he said. "At the time, there was almost nothing known, to speak of, about polar bears." Lentfer was part of an international group of scientists responsible for much of what is known about polar bears today.

"The group is still active today, but unfortunately, I'm no longer with them," he said.

And then there was the bear that got closer than Lentfer would have liked.

"About 1970, '71, we were immobilizing bears from a helicopter, which was pretty routine," he said. "But it was a cold day and I had the gun in and out of the helicopter. I shot a bear that had a cub with her, but she didn't go down, so I got a second, smaller dose and shot her again. That time she went right down.

"We landed the helicopter to tranquilize the cub, and I got to within 30 or 40 feet of the adult when she got up and started chasing me," he said. "What had happened was that the dart was frozen, so the second dosage, being so small, had no effect.

"The fellow I was working with was back at the helicopter. I didn't run toward him, I ran sideways so he'd have a clear shot at the bear. He fired one round into the ground in front of her, which didn't stop her, and he hit her with the second round. She was three feet behind me when he shot her."

The cub was rescued and reared at a research lab, he said.

Lentfer was first named to the Board of Game by Gov. Steve Cowper in 1989. In 1992, when the Hickel administration took over, he was removed.

"I've been asked several times since then if I'd be interested, and said no," he said. "But this time I thought I'd give it a try.

"I think the best attribute a game board member can have is an open mind, without any preconceived agenda," Lentfer said. "Someone who can listen to public comment and proposals, information that the state wildlife biologists provide, and have a discussion among the board members themselves before coming down on it."

"My personal feeling is that the Legislature is too involved in game management," he said. "They're trying to micromanage. The system works better if you appoint good board members and let them do their job.

"The Board of Game needs to be concerned with habitat protection. If we don't protect the habitat, we're not going to have anything else to talk about," Lentfer said. "That speaks directly to logging, and to pure development, even in the Homer area, where we've developed to the point where we've displaced enough moose and taken over enough habitat that we have more moose than we can support."

Now in his seventies, Lentfer still spends as much time as he can outdoors.

"I hunt a lot, goats when I get a permit, and I like to hunt deer in Southeast with my son, who lives in Gustavus," he said.

He also has a daughter in Madison, Wisc., and one in Missoula, Mont.

Other Knowles appointees were Vic Van Ballenberghe of Anchorage, Joel Bennett of Juneau, Rob Hardy of Wasilla and Tim Towarak of Unalakleet.

The next Board of Game meeting is scheduled for Nov. 1 in Juneau. New members will be seated then and can act in an official capacity, but they still must be approved by the Legislature in January.