To federal prosecutors, the killing of a grizzly bear named Sy is just another case of poaching, a low-profile incident overshadowed by humans peddling cocaine, wildlife defenders say.
But to research biologist Jon Almack, Sy’s death is a murder - and there is a suspect - that saddens him like the loss of a family member.
In 1983, north of Priest Lake, Idaho, Almack trapped the bear, the first in the Selkirk Mountains, and buckled a radio collar around her dark brown neck.
Almack, then a University of Idaho graduate student, tracked Sy for two years, sometimes around the clock for long stretches, while living out of a cabin near a desolate place called Phoebe Tip.
He spied on the bear as she grabbed a huckleberry bush with one paw, raked it toward her and started biting off the berries one at a time. Most bears eat leaves, stems and all in one gulp.
Almack was there, too, when Sy grazed clearcuts like a milk cow (bears are 90 percent vegetarian) and tore into a deer carcass.
Minutes after Almack had trapped the bear with a cable snare baited with deer road kill 12 years ago, he kept a promise. He called her Sy, after his wife, Sylvia, who carries the same nickname.
“It sounds corny at first, but it was like losing a member of the family,” says Almack, now 43 and a bear and wolf expert with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the North Cascades.
In November 1993, a hunter with a high-powered rifle killed Sy about four miles west of the IdahoWashington border near Pass Creek Pass, east of Ione. It’s illegal to kill grizzlies, a threatened species.
Animals ravaged her 17-year-old carcass. She could have lived past 30.
Two of Sy’s paws were missing. Bear paw soup is an illegal delicacy in Asia. Paws and gallbladders, which are ground into an aphrodisiac powder, fetch a hefty price overseas.
Sy had two first-year cubs that could not survive without her, Almack says.
That means three bears out of the estimated 35 to 45 in the Selkirks - on both the Canada and U.S. sides - were wiped out with one bullet.
Environmentalists and even state and federal game agents, the latter afraid for their jobs, are frustrated with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane.
A half-dozen sources say the alleged poacher confessed. The case is sitting at the bottom of the pile, however, weighed down by prosecutions against cocaine kingpins.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office is inundated with drug cases,” agrees Roger Parker of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. “Wildlife cases are not the highest priority.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Olms, who’s handling the Sy case, would not explain the delays in prosecuting it. “There is no time frame for going to court,” he says. “It’s a complicated case, and it’s still under consideration.”
He rejects claims that drug cases have buried Sy’s killing.
Frustrated conservation groups have offered thousands of dollars in rewards leading to the killer’s conviction.
“The inability or reluctance to vigorously prosecute these cases is part of the problem,” says Chris Bessler of the Selkirk-Priest Basin Association, based in Sandpoint.
“Every poaching or illegal killing of a grizzly bear in the Selkirks is a huge blow to the overall viability of the population,” he says.
Larry Keeney, the Seattle-based federal wildlife agent who headed the investigation into Sy’s killing, refused to comment on prosecution delays, calling them out of his hands.
Another agent says poaching cases, waning in the wars on drugs and government regulation, are now “Priority Z.”
After Sy’s shell of a 300-pound body was discovered 16 months ago, he received several sympathy cards from friends.
Photographs of Sy - “a very handsome” bear whose thick coat changed colors in the glinting sunlight - adorn Almack’s home and office in Sedro Woolley, Wash.
When he lectures about grizzlies, he shows slides of Sy.
“She was on the air (radio collared) longer than any other grizzly bear in North America,” Almack says. “She had four litters of cubs. All of those animals had been marked, except for these last two.
“We got a lot of information from this single bear. She led me to nine other grizzly bears. She was amazing.”