MOSCOW -- When the governor of the Irkutsk region died in a helicopter crash earlier this month, the question on many minds was whether he was illegally hunting bear at the time.
Officials asserted Igor Yesipovsky was on a business trip when the private helicopter he was riding in crashed on May 9, killing him and three others.
But the incident bore a striking similarity to a poaching case earlier this year, raising suspicions that regional authorities are increasingly using helicopters to track and kill wild animals, including endangered species.
The incidents have sparked outrage among local populations who see the authorities as putting themselves above the law.
Aleksandr Kosopkin, the Kremlin's envoy to the State Duma, was among seven people who died in January when the helicopter they were riding crashed into the side of a mountain in Russia's Altai region.Dead Sheep
Initially, the crash was seen as a simple accident. But photos from the site leaked to a local website told a different story: near the wreck of the helicopter lay the carcasses of two rare argali sheep, one with a knife stuck in its haunch.
An investigation concluded Kosopkin and the other officials on board the Mi-171 were shooting the animals from the air.
Oleg Mitvol, who served as the deputy head of the Natural Resource Ministry's environmental agency at the time of the incident, says he was shocked by the hunting expedition.
It is the complete ignorance by high-ranked bureaucrats of norms and rules that exist for ordinary citizens, but that do not exist for them
"To destroy them from a helicopter with an automatic weapon is absolute blasphemy and vandalism. I can say that I understand the outrage of locals who saw this happen," Mitvol says.
"I think that the fact that this information was not kept quiet is important for the formation of our society."
Hunting from any moving vehicle is illegal in Russia. But a report from the Federal Air Transport Agency was unambiguous -- the Altai hunting party had been using the helicopter to herd animals onto exposed terrain where they could be easily shot from the air.
The report, together with the leaked photograph of the slain argali sheep -- which are featured on Russia's endangered species list -- sparked outrage in Altai.
Local journalists dubbed the scandal "Altai-gate." The fact that the helicopter passengers included Altai environmental officials only heightened the anger further.
Hunters in Altai can obtain licenses to hunt more abundant animals like red deer and Siberian goats. But many hunters are drawn to the region's natural expanses in search of more elusive game, undeterred by laws restricting the hunting of endangered animals.
Aleksei Vaisman, who works for the Russian branch of the WWF wildlife-protection group, was among those fighting for the truth to be told about the Altai poaching case. Local Anger
He says local residents were angry that officials were acting as though their positions of authority put them above the law: "There was huge indignation because all ordinary citizens saw it as a personal insult. It was a demonstrative breaking of the law by those who are supposed to keep it."
Debris of the Irkutsk helicopter crash
The outrage over the Altai case only heightened suspicions in the case of Irkutsk Governor Yesipovsky.
Local leaders in far-flung parts of Russia often use helicopters as an essential mode of transport. But odd details about the trip stirred speculation the crash took place during a hunting expedition.
Yesipovsky was traveling not in his official helicopter, but in an American-made Bell helicopter belonging to a businessman acquaintance. No official flight plan had been made before the flight, and the pilot had allegedly failed to undergo a mandatory medical examination.
Some reports also suggested a hunting gun had been found in the wreckage following the crash.
Police are investigating flight-safety violations, but have not opened a poaching case.
The Natural Resource Ministry, in a statement on its website, suggested the heavy forestation at the site of the crash rules out the possibility of an airborne hunting expedition.
But Mitvol and others still have questions.
"The info that is there now partly confirms the hunting version. If it is proven that it was a bear hunt from a helicopter, especially one in a national park, then a criminal case has to be opened," Mitvol says.
Top Russian and Soviet officials have a history of illegal hunting.
Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was accused of having bear cubs tied to a tree so he could shoot them with ease. There are also stories, perhaps apocryphal, of divers attaching fish to the hook of Nikita Khrushchev's fishing rod.
More recently, the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper reported that officials were involved in an illegal helicopter bear hunt in the Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula last October.
Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow says illegal hunting expeditions are seen by many as a demonstration that top Russian officials feel themselves to be above the law.
"I think there is a very serious problem which is becoming especially visible now because of the incidents in Altai and Irkutsk," Petrov says.
"It is the complete ignorance by high-ranked bureaucrats of norms and rules that exist for ordinary citizens, but that do not exist for them."