Grizzly shooting pits Idahoans against Uncle Sam
To understand the deep rift over federal regulation of endangered species, one only had to sit in the stands of the annual 4-H auction at the Boundary County Fairgrounds here last month, when 14-year-old Jasmine Hill’s handsome pig, Regina, went up for sale.
First, it’s important to know the back story: Jasmine’s father, Jeremy, had been charged by the U.S. Justice Department a few weeks earlier with shooting a grizzly bear — a federally designated threatened species — 40 yards from the back door of the family home at the base of the Selkirk Mountains.
Plenty of people have been charged with illegally killing endangered wolves, bears, caribou and other animals with tenuous footholds in the rugged country in places like northern Idaho.
But this was different. Hill, his neighbors said, was protecting his home and his family. He was doing what any of them might have done. And now a man trying to raise six children out in the woods on a backhoe operator’s earnings was facing up to a year in prison and a $50,000 fine.
So when Jasmine started shyly prodding her prized pig around the arena, Sam Fodge, the owner of a wood-chip mill, quickly bought it at $4.50 a pound, or $1,143. Then Fodge said: “Give it back. Sell it again.”
The pig sold next to North Idaho Energy Logs. Then Pluid Logging. Then Three Mile Cafe. In all, Regina was sold 15 times, raising a total of $19,588 for Hill’s legal defense fund. Jasmine hung her head, dumbfounded, in the arena. Jeremy and his wife, Rachel, were in tears.
“Some pig. Some community,” Bonners Ferry News Publisher Mike Weland wrote the next day, evoking the day in the book “Charlotte’s Web” when a loyal spider turned a pig into the star of the county fair.
After that, Jeremy Hill won support from Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, the state’s congressional delegation, the Boundary County Board of Commissioners and even county prosecutor Jack Douglas, who in an extraordinary public statement said that seasoned state wildlife investigators looked into the case and did not ask him to file charges.
“Grizzly bears are unpredictable, dangerous predators,” Douglas said. “In my mind, there’s no question that the Hill family was likely in danger or that Jeremy, by his actions, did what he did in defense of his family and his property.”
Federal officials, however, said Hill violated the Endangered Species Act, which allows landowners to shoot one of the region’s struggling population of grizzlies only if it’s directly threatening a human life.
“I well understand that there’s a lot of information that’s already out there.... There are public figures in this state who have indicated, based on what they know, they would have made a different decision,” U.S. Atty. Wendy Olson said in explaining the filing of federal criminal charges. But “we have an obligation in all cases to make decisions based on the evidence that is presented to us in the course of the investigation and based on the law as it stands.”
The conflict between state and federal views of wildlife management has played out like a stage drama across Western states over the past few decades, with constant disputes over logging, mining and grazing. Such battles have a uniquely emotional pitch when it comes to efforts to boost populations of violent predators such as wolves and grizzlies.
More than 100,000 grizzlies once roamed the lower 48, but there are now fewer than 1,000 in the northern Rockies, on barely 1% of their historic range. Wildlife advocates want to know: If not the mountains around the Kootenai Valley here, where else are the bears of northern Idaho going to go?
Local residents insist the issue is not the bears, but the law.
“One of the flaws of the ESA is the premium it places on protecting species at the expense of everything else,” Otter wrote in protesting the charges against Hill.
To Hill’s neighbors at the auction that day, shouting out a bid on a pig was a way of drawing a line in the sand. “I told Jeremy from the very beginning, this could happen to any one of us. We are in this together. We do have your back. And we will support you any way we can,” said logger Robert Pluid.
Perhaps nowhere has the reach of the federal law been more acutely felt than in Boundary County, which over the years has seen its big timber mills close because of a poor timber market and tightening federal forest restrictions. In Bonners Ferry, a town with 2,540 people and an unemployment rate of 14.5%, many residents say economic recovery is impossible in an area where the federal government owns 75% of the land.
Two enormous grizzly recovery areas, made up largely of federally owned land, surround Bonners Ferry, and townspeople say the protected bears increasingly are wandering out of the mountains, killing elk and causing fear.
The grizzlies are cut off from bigger, healthier populations in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and state wildlife officials estimate there are only 35 to 40 roaming the U.S. side of the border in the Selkirk Mountains. An equal number, they say, live north of the border and also in the Cabinet Mountains, on the east side of the Kootenai Valley.
Their hold is precarious. Though some bears are making it up into Canada, traversing between the Cabinet and Selkirk mountains — important for genetic diversity between the two bear populations — means crossing a river, perhaps an Anheuser-Busch hop farm and U.S. 95.
“These are what some biologists call the walking dead,” Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has long studied the plight of America’s biggest predator, said of the Selkirk grizzlies. “Meaning, if bears stay at these levels and continue to be isolated from each other, they’re never going to get to recovery.”
Hill has said he was getting out of the shower on Mother’s Day in May when his wife spotted a female grizzly and a pair of 2-year-old juveniles nosing around the pigpen 40 yards outside. The two began shouting for their children, who had last been seen playing basketball on the opposite side of the house, but got no answer.
While Rachel went to look for the children, Hill picked up his gun and went onto the back deck. He leveled the weapon at one of the young bears, which was climbing into the pigpen, and fired. The other juvenile bear and the sow rushed into the woods in fright, while the young bear Hill had shot limped off, and then turned and moved back toward the house.
Hill fired two more shots, deciding it was better to finish the bear off than have a wounded animal around the property. He immediately notified state fish and game officials.
The state investigated and turned its findings over to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which conducted its own inquiry. In August, Olson announced the criminal charges.
Not all of Hill’s neighbors rose to his defense. Jerry Pavia, who ran for the county commission in 2008 on a conservation platform, said many valley residents think people need to work harder to accommodate the bears. “I’m proud to live in a place where they have endangered species. That’s one of the reasons I live here, is we have an opportunity to actually see one of these animals,” he said.
But others say Hill never should have been threatened with the law for defending his family.
Last week, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boise, faced with outrage bordering on insurrection in northern Idaho, dropped the criminal charges in favor of a citation that will require Hill to pay a $1,000 civil fine.
“The United States attorney’s office well understands Mr. Hill is a concerned husband and father who wants to protect his family,” Olson said in a statement.
The apparent compromise may do little to quiet the wider controversy over the Endangered Species Act.
“People think they have to come in here and save us from ourselves. That we’re not smart enough to manage this kind of area. For crying out loud, we’ve lived here all of our lives; we know what’s best for our land,” resident Guy Patchen said in an interview before the dismissal of the criminal charges. He grew up on a ranch at the base of the Selkirks and is now an activist with Idaho for Wildlife, which advocates controlling predators to preserve other wildlife such as elk and deer.
Patchen and others say they are no longer willing to allow their hometowns to be a recovery zone for predators dear to environmentalists who don’t have to live with them.
“Jeremy was protecting his family, his food source and his house,” Patchen declared. “And I guarantee you, if I kill a grizzly bear for the same reason now, I’m not going to tell anybody about it.”
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