A Chattaroy hunter had just killed a grizzly bear when her two hungry and affection-starved cubs began nuzzling his legs.
Robert Christopher Wenger felt bad enough.
The bear he had dropped in northeast Washington with a highpowered rifle was wearing a radio collar and ear tags - sure signs it was a protected grizzly.
Wenger, sales director at a Cheney manufacturer and a distinguishedlooking man with a spotless record, believed the bear had charged him.
Now he was looking at a federally protected carcass while being cuddled by two cubs he had orphaned.
What happened next can best be described as a case of bad judgment.
“He panicked,” Wenger’s attorney, Lewis Schrawyer, said. “He was scared.”
Wenger, 49, pleaded guilty Thursday to two federal misdemeanors.
In addition to the unlawful taking of a threatened species on Oct. 27, 1993, Wenger kept it a secret, another misdemeanor under the Endangered Species Act. As a result, both cubs starved, froze to death or became cougar prey.
“I feel sure that had we known, we could have caught those cubs and given care to ensure their survival,” said Chris Servheen, national coordinator of grizzly recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula.
Wenger admitted killing the bear a month later but called it self-defense. Federal agents and state wildlife officers in Washington and Idaho dogged him for 18 more months, believing his story had as many holes as Wenger had left in the bear.
U.S. Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno will sentence Wenger on June 13. The government recommends $9,000 in fines and restitution to a grizzly recovery fund and no U.S. hunting privileges for five years.
Wenger, who now lives with his wife on a 26-foot sailboat in Puget Sound, was working for XN Technologies Inc. when he and a friend went elk hunting in the Selkirk Mountains.
They split up near the WashingtonIdaho border west of Priest Lake, and Wenger walked two miles down a gated logging road.
There, he stumbled upon Selkirk grizzly No. 867. She was not your average bear.
Sy was the first grizzly trapped in the Selkirks, thus confirming the species’ existence there. She was named after the wife of the researcher who had collared her in 1983.
Sy was beloved, and agents were obsessed with nailing her killer.
“This was the worst bear he could have killed in the entire Selkirk ecosystem,” said Doug Zimmer, Olympia spokesman for the federal wildlife agency. “This bear had no record of conflict with humans and proved for 15 years that grizzlies can co-exist with man even in populated areas.”
Sy was the 10th grizzly illegally killed out of the 34 bears collared on the U.S. side of the Selkirks.
Her loss is the deepest, however, and a severe blow to grizzly recovery efforts, officials said.
Sy was a furry 275-pound laboratory.
She was radio-collared longer than any other grizzly in North American history and led researchers to many other bears. She was a prolific parent, birthing at least three and maybe four sets of twins.
Sy also had a personality. She and her cubs peacefully shared pastures with livestock. Instead of eating huckleberries a bush at a time, Sy meticulously plucked off single berries.
Researchers say grizzlies are 10 times smarter than dogs and learn from an accumulation of life experiences. Sy was regarded as a teacher and counselor of Selkirk grizzlies.
After her death, wildlife officers returned to the crime scene for exhaustive evidence gathering. They stayed awake nights reconstructing her death in darkened living rooms.
“It was real emotional, a real somber time,” one agent said.
Washington state wildlife officer Ted Holden cracked the case a month after Sy’s death by reviewing license plate numbers he had jotted down while patrolling the woods. The first plate matched Wenger’s pickup.
Holden later learned that Wenger and his hunting partner had seen Holden’s truck going through the forest shortly after the bear had been shot.
Wenger came clean immediately but never veered from his selfdefense story. He pleaded guilty, his attorney said, because of the unpredictable nature of a jury and to get on with his life.
Wenger maintained that Sy had charged him from a distance of 60 yards and that he got off five shots from a bolt-action .308.
Forensics evidence indicated Sy was veering down a hillside when she was struck. The fatal shot severed her spine.
Agents and the world’s leading expert on grizzly attacks, Steve Herrero of the University of Calgary, also found that Wenger could have gotten off only one shot if the bear had been charging him.
A grizzly bear sprints 44 feet per second and runs the 60-yard dash in about four seconds.
“He was very concerned he was going to get killed,” said Wenger’s attorney. “He wasn’t going to stand there and ask it for a cup of coffee and an ID card.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: RULES TO LIVE BY Hikers and hunters who enter grizzly country can avoid confrontations or save themselves by following a few common-sense rules: Walk with the wind at your back so any bears in the area can smell you. Whistle, sing or wear a bell so bears can hear you. Hang food and garbage out of the reach of bears by throwing a rope over tree limbs. “Don’t cook bacon in your tent and then go to sleep,” said Wayne Wakkinen, senior wildlife research biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. If confronted, stay calm. Back away slowly and speak softly to the bear. Find a tree if you can. Grizzlies are not good climbers. Never run. That triggers a predator response, and bears can reach speeds of 35 mph. “You’re not going to outrun a bear,” Wakkinen said. Instead, curl up into a ball and play dead. Leave your backpack on to protect vital areas. If you shoot a grizzly in selfdefense, you won’t be prosecuted. But you must telephone authorities within five days to report the kill. It’s best to report the kill immediately to improve the forensics investigation and save any orphaned cubs. Note: Researchers urge you to fight back if attacked by black bears. In addition, black bears are skilled tree climbers. -J. Todd Foster
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