Federal Judge Sends Message on Grizzly Killing

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Killing threatened and endangered species and then trying to hide it, will not be tolerated.

That was the message U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill sent when he sentenced two men who had pleaded guilty to charges related to killing a grizzly bear cub and destroying a radio tracking collar.

On April 12, 2006 at the U.S. District Court in Pocatello, Winmill completed the sentencing hearing for two Eastern Idaho men who had pleaded guilty to the September 2002 incident on Sawtell Peak. The two men, Tim Brown, 38, of Island Park and Brad Hoopes, 36, of St. Anthony, already had pleaded guilty to the charges and the purpose of the hearing was to determine sentencing. The hearing took on the air of a trial because of a dispute between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the defendants about the reason they killed the cub.

The defendants claimed they shot the cub in self defense and dispatched it later as part of a mercy killing. The Fish and Wildlife Service charged that the men actually killed the cub in cold blood. Forensic evidence presented by Fish and Wildlife showed that the cub had not been mortally wounded, and that rather than being a mercy killing, the confused cub had been shot from behind while it was trying to flee the area after spending the evening attempting to suckle its dying mother.

"While this was not an easy case, & when you kill an endangered species there will be consequences," Winmill said after hearing all the testimony and considering all the evidence.

During testimony on behalf of the defense, co-defendant Daniel Walter of Kentucky said, "Tim (Brown) said that what we had done was a service to the hunters of Idaho. We don't want or need grizzly bears." Walter had pleaded guilty earlier in the year to killing the cub's mother and already had been fined $15,000 dollars.

Brown said he could not recall making the statement and said that everyone had agreed to the cover up.

Winmill said there was "a tremendous conflict in testimony," but in the end physical evidence led him to decide against Brown and Hoopes. An expert witness for the defense was little help to the men when it was later pointed out that he had misidentified the side of the bear from which a damaged shoulder blade had come.

All the individuals charged in this case had been members of a large hunting party staying at the lodge of former NFL football player Merrill Hoge. While Hoge was not in Idaho at the time of the incident, Brown said that he was instructed by Hoge over the telephone to help find the bear that Walters had wounded - a bear they thought might be a grizzly. During his testimony Brown said he called up Hoge after the group had come down from Sawtell Peak where they had discovered the dead sow and had killed the cub. Hoge did not come forward on his own with information about the incident. It was not until he was contacted much later as part of the official investigation that he told what he knew.

"Being sent to jail is appropriate because it sends a clear message to the community," Winmill said.

Hoopes was fined $500 plus a $25 service charge, $500 restitution to be paid to the Yellowstone Association, two years revocation of hunting privileges and two months in prison.

Brown was fined $1,000 with a $10 special charge, $19,300 restitution payable to the Yellowstone Association, two years revocation of hunting privileges and three months in prison. Because of the hardships involved, Winmill said he would allow prison time to be served as close to eastern Idaho as possible and was willing to be flexible with the timing of the period to surrender.

The money received by the Yellowstone Association will be used to aid in grizzly bear management within the Yellowstone Ecosystem. The female bear was important to the grizzly bear recovery program in Idaho because for a number of years the radio collar she wore had helped biologists to establish the presence of a sow with a cub in one of Idaho's bear management units. The information was vital to the equation used to calculate the status of the recovering grizzly bear population, and her loss could affect future calculations if another sow and cub cannot be observed in the same area.

As with many hunting situations, split-second decisions often need to be made and sometimes mistakes do occur. This case underscores the importance of individuals coming forward immediately with what they know about what has happened. A number of grizzly bears have been killed within the ecosystem during the past few years because of misidentification by hunters. In those instances when people came forward promptly and of their own volition, fines were relatively small and no jail time imposed.

When the grizzly bear sow and cub were found poached, a number of local and national conservation groups had joined together to create a reward fund for information leading to conviction of those responsible for the killings. Now that all the charged parties have pleaded guilty and been sentenced, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be working with the groups to determine how the reward will be divided among the individuals who provided information.