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Landers: Grizzly shooting case must hinge on facts

Outdoors writer Rich Landers.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Outdoors writer Rich Landers. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
A North Idaho man deserves our respect for calling wildlife authorities after he shot a grizzly bear in his yard on May. 8. That was the right thing to do. It was a stand-up lesson to the five children Jeremy M. Hill said he was defending in his Porthill-area home. But that doesn’t necessarily mean shooting the bear was the right thing to do. It’s not clear the 2-year-old male silvertip was doing anything more than trying to survive unusually harsh spring conditions along with its mother and sibling, fresh out of their den. Hill, 33, pleaded not guilty in federal court Monday to charges of killing a grizzly, a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Hill’s court appearance drew dozens of supporters who claim he did nothing wrong. This was good political theater for Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Gov. Butch Otter to step up and say the government shouldn’t pursue the case against Hill. Maybe they know something the rest of us don’t, but the case can’t yet be fully debated. Most of the facts are being kept secret at this time by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, prosecutors, the public defender and the Hill family. Hill may have been justified in shooting the bear in his yard where his children are raising swine. Maybe not. Federal wildlife agents probably couldn’t win a popularity contest in hell, but the jury’s still out on whether they should be condemned for doing their job. Shooting a grizzly bear is serious business. The law says a wolf can be shot if it’s actively threatening pets or livestock, but no such caveat exists for shooting a grizzly. Self-defense or the defense of another person are the only legal justifications for shooting a grizzly. Here’s why the law is so stiff. Coyotes and wolves have pups by the litter. Grizzlies reproduce at a glacial pace. Most forest critters can bear young at the age of 1 or 2. A female grizzly doesn’t become sexually mature until she’s 6 or 7. In ideal circumstances, that sow will give birth to a pair of cubs every three years. The sow might produce cubs into her early 20s, although she faces an 8 percent chance of dying each year. Strict protections have enabled grizzlies in this region to increase populations in the recent decade, but only by an average of 2 percent a year. At that rate, any loss is a significant setback.

2007 was a notably bad year for Selkirk grizzlies. One was killed by indiscriminant hunters northeast of Sullivan Lake. One that wandered far south was killed by a black bear hunter near Kelly Creek. Another grizzly was killed that year near Priest River. That bear had become addicted to human food after a photographer essentially baited the animal for better pictures.

Biologists estimate about 70 grizzly bears are roaming the Selkirk Mountains ecosystem, which includes 2,200 square miles of northeastern Washington, North Idaho and southern British Columbia. Roughly 70 percent of them hang out in Canada. Interagency recovery plans call for bringing the population up to 100 bears. Porthill is in the thick of the region’s sparse grizzly population, considering it’s between the Selkirk grizzly recovery area and the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, where another 40 or so grizzlies roam. Rural North Idahoans should have been in the front row for listening to the information state and federal wildlife managers were dishing out this spring. Late-lingering snow was forcing hungry bears to remain longer into the lowlands in their search for food. Coexisting with grizzlies depends on containing garbage, pet food and bird seed so they can’t be attractants that lure good bears into troublemaking. This trio of bears had been reported in the Porthill area, and state officials say video footage shows the family in meadows feeding on voles. Grizzly bears rarely are a threat to cows or horses, but they are known to be attracted by smaller barnyard animals such as goats, pigs or chickens. Mostly this stems from the grizzly’s weakness for the grain that’s used to feed them. It’s fairly convenient to protect these small animals from grizzlies in that short spring period when the bears are forced to the lowlands. An electric fence is inexpensive and effective. Jeremy Hill may have chosen the best course, killing a cub that was in his yard, enabling the mother and the other cub to flee and possibly teaching them a lesson. Wildlife officials set baited culvert traps at the site after the shooting to catch the other grizzlies should they return. They did not. Had Hill shot the sow, three bears would have been doomed instead of one. On the other hand, no evidence has been revealed that the bears actually threatened humans or livestock. Maybe several warning shots would have sent them running. We don’t know. The defense that Hill was defending his children doesn’t necessarily fly if the bears weren’t in a face-to-face conflict. It’s not uncommon for children to be brought indoors for a few days until danger passes, whether they’re in the city or the country. Some people have an adversarial relationship with wildlife around them, others might buy a parcel in grizzly country just for the thrill of seeing one pass through. We’re all free to choose, to a point. Meantime, Jeremy Hill is innocent until proven guilty and should get the benefit of any doubt, which may be more than the grizzly got in a blast of rural justice.
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