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The Perils of Shooting a Grizzly

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photo by Trine de Florie photo by Trine de Florie

Politically Incorrect

What we know is that some time back in May, a mama grizzly and two cubs wandered onto the homestead of a Porthill family. The parents were inside, and the kids were outside playing. Shortly thereafter, one of the cubs was shot and killed. Idaho Fish and Game was called, as is required whenever you shoot wildlife in the state, and especially when you shoot an animal protected under the endangered species act. After an investigation, those officers determined that no charges would be filed against homeowner Jeremy Hill.

The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife was also informed, as is also required under the law, and this agency also undertook an investigation. They chose to charge the homeowner with a misdemeanor felony that carries a potential penalty of a $50,000 fine, and up to a year in jail.

And then North Idaho blew up.

Editorial pages filled up with rants against oppressive government, in the form of both federal officials and the endangered species act itself. Supporters flocked to the county fair and, in a show of what’s best in a community, bought, turned back and bought again the pig sold at auction by Hill’s daughter, to the tune of $18,000. Local Facebook statuses filled with vitriol and every politician in Idaho, it seemed, took to the airwaves to stand behind Hill’s actions, and get their licks in against the federal government.

I was right with them. “WTF?!” I asked. “If our local guys thought this was a justified shooting, then who does this woman from Boise think she is overruling that decision?”

My first exposure to the issue came from Mike Weland’s story on his Bonners Ferry News website (http://tinyurl.com/3hfuz9b) regarding that market animal sale, and it took my friend Sue Haynes to remind me it’s not smart to believe everything you read. (That’s one of the definitions of a true friend, by the way—they’ll point out to you when you’re being a total butt head.)

Not that Mike’s story didn’t present the facts of the case, by the way. But it’s always good to remember that there’s usually more to a story; something I forgot.

Courtesy of Mike again (who’s doing a damn fine job of covering news from our northern county, by the way), I got my next exposure to coverage of the grizzly shooting case in the form of a letter written by Donna Capurso, chairman of the Boundary County Republican Central Committee. Capurso was seeking support for Hill’s legal defense, and wrote, “Jeremy needs the help of our great community as well as all Idahoans and Americans that see the injustice our federal government is inflicting on this north Idaho family.”

To my surprise, her detailed accounting of what happened that day (you can read it yourself, here: http://tinyurl.com/3euon45) changed my opinion about the course of events. Because it seemed, at least in her writing, there was a very real possibility that instead of protecting his children from a grizzly (an action allowed under ESA), Hill might instead have been killing the griz to keep it from killing his daughter’s prize 4-H pig (which constitutes an illegal shooting). Well, Sue... Crap! You were right.

Now hold on to your pens before you get all freaked out on me and start sending nasty letters. Let me say that were it my decision to make, I would not have filed charges against Hill for illegally shooting a grizzly bear. For me, there are too many issues mitigating the case.

In the first place, grizzly are unpredictable creatures. Although the bears were in his sight (going after the pigs) and his children were not, an encounter with a bear can change directions faster than you can blink an eye. Hill had no way of knowing if one of his kids was going to come charging around the corner of the house at any moment, changing the existing paradigm in a way none of us wants to think too closely about.

In addition, other than (potentially) the shooting itself, Hill did everything right. He shot twice more to put the bear out of its misery, and immediately called Fish and Game about what he’d done, instead of following the “shoot, shovel and shut up” approach advocated by so many. 

Thirdly, well... this will show you why I tend to be politically incorrect. But quite honestly, if a grizzly bear was in my yard, going after my cat for example, I have to tell you I’d shoot its ass from here to kingdom come. Sorry if you don’t think our pets or livestock deserve the same protection as our kids do, but that’s where I’m at on this.

Finally, I believe our justice system (from city police to game wardens to the U.S. Attorney’s Office) is much too quick to charge people with crimes. It’s true that Hill is protected to the extent he can argue his case in a court of law, but spending $50,000 or more to ultimately (maybe) prove your innocence doesn’t strike me as leaving you a “winner.”

Still politically incorrect (at least, in the area that I live in), however, is my feeling that there was a question about where Hill’s actions fell under the law, and I believe the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife was acting responsibly in recommending he be charged.  Because it is not their job to interpret the law, nor do we want it to be—that’s the job of our court system.

Sucks, doesn’t it? 

The Hill case (the charges have since been dropped, by the way) has illustrated two points. One is that there might be issues with our law (in this case, the Endangered Species Act) as it is written. This has great impact for those of us who live in areas where a grizzly bear may wander into our yards, threatening those we love (which may include our animal companions). And let’s not forget—Jeremy Hill did not live way up in the woods. He lived in an area where grizzly (or other bears) in the yard are not particularly common. But changing climate patterns (either the regular local ones or the ones we’re beginning to see due to the global warming issues that many still don’t believe in) mean that ‘not common’ is not the same as “never.”

Do we have the right to protect our pets? What about our food sources? And if we don’t—should we have those rights?

Secondly, however, this case shows us that the legal option may not be the best option to address these types of issues. Case law is a wonderful thing; for everybody, that is, but the people who fork out the time, money and emotional distress of taking a case through the court system to refine the law.

It would be hoped that all those politicians who jumped on the bandwagon of this case will recognize both of these concerns, and work to get them resolved.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

grizzly, endangered species act, Politically Incorrect, self defense, Jeremy Hill, US Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Porthill, Mike Weland, Bonners Ferry News, Boundary County Republican Central Committee, Donna Capurso

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