Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hunter mistakenly shoots grizzly bear near St. Maries

A grizzly bear stands amid sagebrush in Yellowstone National Park in June 2016.  (Jim Peaco/National Park Service)

A hunter in North Idaho shot and killed a grizzly bear last week after mistaking it for a black bear.

The hunter killed the subadult male grizzly on June 10 in the lower St. Joe River drainage near St. Maries, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Grizzlies in the Lower 48 are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The hunter identified the bear as a grizzly after shooting it and reported it to the authorities, according to Fish and Game.

T.J. Ross, an Idaho Fish and Game spokesman, said the hunter was given a warning and was not cited.

Ross said that decision was made because the hunter has been “extremely cooperative” with the investigation, and because while grizzlies are around in North Idaho, the bear was shot in an area where sightings are uncommon.

“That’s an area where we would not expect to see a grizzly bear,” Ross said.

The bear was killed in the Panhandle region’s Unit Six, a broad area that stretches south from the divide between the St. Joe River drainage and the Coeur d’Alene River drainage.

Wayne Kasworm, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly recovery program, said the nearest established population is about 50 miles north in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of far northwestern Montana and parts of North Idaho. The Clark Fork River is generally considered the southern edge of grizzly distribution in that area.

Grizzlies wander long distances, particularly young males, and they have occasionally been seen south of the Clark Fork River. Kasworm can recall bears that wandered from the Cabinet-Yaak to the Kelly Creek drainage or to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. He also said there was a bear years ago that went from the U.S.-Canada border in the Selkirk Mountains all the way to near Grangeville, Idaho.

In this case, he said it was notable how close the bear got to the town of St. Maries.

“Certainly there have been a few making it down there,” Kasworm said. “I think one of the more interesting things about this one was maybe how far west it was.”

Where the bear came from is unclear. Kasworm said genetic testing might help biologists learn more.

It’s one of a handful of recent grizzly sightings in unusual places. Earlier this month in northeast Washington, a young male grizzly got into a chicken coop north of Chewelah. That bear had been trapped outside of Colville in the fall and relocated to the Selkirks.

In Idaho, Fish and Game officials have reported recent sightings near Salmon and west of Interstate 15 in the upper Snake River region.

It’s the second consecutive year with a case of mistaken bear identity in North Idaho. Last year, a hunter shot a grizzly north of Priest Lake after mistaking it for a black bear. The hunter was issued a citation.

Black bear hunters in Washington and Montana are required to pass a test to ensure they know the difference between black bears and grizzlies.

Idaho has no such requirement. Fish and Game said in the news release announcing the killing of the grizzly near St. Maries that it’s a hunter’s responsibility to know the difference between black bears and grizzly bears, and to properly identify their targets.

The state’s bear hunting regulations warn hunters they may encounter grizzlies in unit six and other parts of the Panhandle region. The agency works to educate hunters about the differences between the species.

“From our perspective, the best tool in the tool belt is the education piece,” Ross said.

Size and color aren’t enough to determine the species of a bear. Instead, people should look for multiple features, such as the shape of the bear’s face and ears and whether it has a shoulder hump.

Ross also said the bear killed last week was shot over a bait site. Using bait to hunt black bears is legal in Idaho with a few exceptions in districts known to have high numbers of grizzly bears, such as the unit in the northernmost portion of the Panhandle.

WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project and Wilderness Watch sued the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2019 over the allowance of black bear baiting in areas of Wyoming and Idaho that are also home to grizzly bears.

After a judge ruled in favor of the federal government in 2023, the groups appealed the suit to the Ninth Circuit Court.