No Right to Shoot Marauding Grizzly Bears, Ranchers Told

Times Staff Writer

Ranchers whose livestock are threatened by grizzly bears have no constitutional right to shoot an endangered species, even when federal law permits limited sport hunting of the bears, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Ruling in the case of a Montana rancher who lost 84 sheep in a single month to marauding grizzlies, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that there is no constitutional right to defend property against wildlife protected under federal law.

Rancher Richard P. Christy was fined $2,500 when he shot and killed a grizzly bear, one of several that had already slaughtered 20 of his sheep grazing on lands leased from the Blackfoot Indian Tribe near Glacier National Park.

Previous attempts to frighten the bears by building fires and firing shots into the air had failed, as had attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set traps.


Christy challenged the fine, asserting that the penalty violated his constitutional right to defend his sheep. He later sought to have the federal regulations protecting the grizzlies declared unconstitutional because he said they irrationally permit limited sport hunting of the bears while preventing ranchers from protecting their livestock.

But in a unanimous decision written by Judge Arthur L. Alarcon, the court upheld the regulations and held that while ranchers can kill an endangered species to protect their lives, there is no such protection for defense of property.

“We do not minimize the seriousness of the problem faced by livestock owners such as plaintiffs, nor do we suggest that defense of property is an unimportant value,” the court said.

“We simply hold that the right to kill federally protected wildlife in defense of property is not ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’ nor so ‘deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition’ that it can be recognized by us as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.”


Importance Described

Sue Ann Love, a lawyer for Christy and two other plaintiffs, Thomas B. Guthrie and Ira Perkins, said the case is important because it affects the rights of ranchers to protect their stock against all kinds of federally protected wildlife.

“We have the grizzly bears, and there’s talk of reintroducing wolves in Montana and Wyoming, and if that comes about, that’s another potential source of the same problem,” she said.

“Implicit in all of the rights recognized in the Constitution is one to protect your property when it’s being destroyed right before your very eyes,” she said.


Attorneys for the Justice Department could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for the wildlife service’s grizzly protection program in Idaho, Jay Gore, said most endangered species affecting ranchers, such as mountain lions and black bears, are protected by state management programs, not federal programs.

“The Endangered Species Act was passed in the early 1970s, and prior to that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was pretty common if a grizzly got into a livestock area for the rancher to just go get his gun,” Gore said. “We’ve come a long ways, in doing some real good educational work since then.”