Killing a beloved grizzly bear was bad enough, a federal judge said Tuesday, but a Spokane County hunter really messed up when he left her two cubs to die.
U.S. Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno looked past Robert Christopher Wenger’s spotless record. She ordered one of the region’s stiffest penalties ever for the illegal taking of a threatened species.
Wenger, 49, a former sales executive for a Cheney manufacturer, must pay $21,000 in fines and restitution. He also got a year of probation and can’t hunt for five years.
A stunned Wenger quickly fled the courtroom and refused to comment.
He had killed a 15-year-old sow nicknamed Sy on Oct. 26, 1993, west of Priest Lake on the Washington side of the Idaho border. Her two cubs - which nuzzled Wenger after he had gone to check on their dead mother - starved, froze to death or became cougar prey.
State and federal wildlife agents left the courtroom with huge grins on their faces.
“Wow,” said Doug Zimmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland. “This really sends a message to hunters.”
Normally such hefty fines are levied against poachers, he said, or hunters with criminal records who killed protected species in national parks, where guns are prohibited.
Six weeks after Wenger hit Sy with up to five shots from a bolt-action rifle, agents visited his north Spokane County home. They routinely had recorded Wenger’s license plate number while he and a companion were elk hunting.
Wenger claimed self-defense all along, saying the 275-pound bear had charged him from 60 yards.
His story unraveled after an 18-month investigation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Olms said. Experts, including the world’s top researcher on bear attacks, also attacked Wenger’s story.
Steve Herrero at the University of Calgary concluded Wenger could not have gotten off five shots if Sy had been charging. Grizzlies sprint 44 feet per second, or a shade over four seconds for a 60-yard dash.
But what really impugned Wenger were the cubs.
Had he telephoned authorities, even anonymously, the baby bruins could have been trapped and raised until ready for the wilds of the Selkirk Mountains, researchers said.
Wenger’s Spokane attorney, Lewis Schrawyer, explained the case as poor judgment and said his client has suffered permanently from a guilty conscience and the negative attention.
Wenger and his wife were so stressed, Schrawyer said, they quit their jobs, sold their Chattaroy home and sunk most of their money into a 26-foot sailboat, in which they now live on Puget Sound.
“He had an overwhelming sense of dread at the thought, ‘I’m going to be mauled and chewed on,”’ Schrawyer told the judge. “He thought he was going to get killed by a bear.”
The bear’s research value was not lost on the judge, a former science teacher and biology major who said she grew up in a family of law-abiding hunters.
Sy was the first grizzly radio collared in the Selkirks and was tracked for 10 years - longer than any other in North American history. Federal researchers say only 25 grizzlies remain on the U.S. side of the Selkirks. Environmentalists put the number at closer to 10.
“He walked away from two live cubs and let them starve to death,” Coeur d’Alene environmental attorney Chuck Sheroke said outside the courtroom. “If he had reported it, probably nothing would have happened to him.”
Calling $3,000 in restitution “woefully inadequate,” the judge ordered Wenger to pay $15,000 to the Selkirk Grizzly Recovery Program and $6,000 in fines - $9,000 up front. The remaining $12,000 must be paid within six months.
“You’re a seasoned hunter,” Imbrogno told Wenger. “You should have reported this incident right away.”
Federal wildlife agent Roger Parker and state wildlife officer Ted Holden said the judge made the exhaustive investigation worthwhile.
“You can investigate until hell freezes over,” Parker said, “but if the judge doesn’t back us up, it does no good.”